Integrating the haredim into Israeli society

The haredi view of the establishment of the State of Israel is governed by the principle of messianic redemption.

Haredi men in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi men in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
After the recent military operation in Gaza, it is easy to forget that the coming elections were rescheduled to an early date due to the issue of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) draft exemption. Yet this debate is not over – it has just begun. The question of whether the haredim should be drafted is rooted in even deeper challenges that Israeli society has to face. The major issue we have to deal with is the separation of the haredi population from the larger population.
The haredi view of the establishment of the State of Israel is governed by the principle of messianic redemption. This community regards national restoration to the Jewish homeland as a vision to be realized through divine forces, in reward for the observance of strict religious practices – not through human efforts. A wide consensus consequently exists among the haredi Jewish populace that an independent and sovereign Israel constitutes an affront to the divine will.
Israeli political institutions are thus perceived as representing a violation of the sacred law.
In haredi eyes, the State of Israel not only profanes the sacred by precluding the possibility of a miraculous redemption but also conducts itself in a fashion which contravenes haredi lifestyle and culture (e.g., working on the Sabbath, eating non-kosher food, etc.).
When Judaism encountered the European Enlightenment movement in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the haredim chose to withdraw from general society and secular culture to preserve the Jewish religion. Ultra- Orthodoxy is therefore customarily characterized by a constant alertness to the threat posed by modern, secular Western culture. The haredi opposition to Israel is thus not merely restricted to antagonism toward state political institutions but also represents counter-resistance to Israeli society as a representative of Western culture.
Yet we should not give up on the possibility that these social tensions can be overcome. We should view these social and political challenges in light of the great potential they hold. Integrating the haredim into economic and mainstream life holds a great opportunity to boost the Israeli economy and strengthen social solidarity.
Thus, although this separation seems quite severe, the understanding of its true nature might lead us to a productive solution. We do not have to interpret this resistance as a “clash of civilizations.”
One can interpret the haredi resistance to the Western world as an internal matter, as a protection against domestic changes. In other words, the haredi resistance does not necessarily stem from a position that rejects or assaults modern culture.
Instead, this resistance intends to denounce and delay internal processes of change which haredi society is undergoing.
It is interesting to better understand this idea with organizational and psychological theories about resistant behavior in individuals as a reaction to changing circumstances. In the world of organizations, resistance to change is the action taken by individuals and groups when they perceive organizational transformations as a threat to their position or the ways they are used to working.
They resist the change even when they agree with the need for it and claim that they do not want to go back. In psychology, resistance appears when the patient feels that his or her self is being exposed in the therapy process, even when they know it is for their own benefit. The same might hold for haredi society.
The haredim apply a resistant behavior because they are threatened by the majority culture. It is actually possible that some who behave in this way actually want to assimilate into the majority culture and to integrate into Israeli society.
However, they are afraid of the unknown, the price of going through the change, and the shift in their domestic social system.
Of course, there are many ideological arguments in this “religious war” against Western Israeli society. Nevertheless, we should also give voice to those who say: “just slow down, I’m changing, but at my own pace.” Focusing on this perspective, we should ask ourselves: is there any real rejection of the Israeli culture here? The answer is no.
The rejection does not arise because of the majority culture and claims against it; on the contrary, it actually defines the process of adoption of this new culture.
For example, there is an increasing willingness to receive state funds and to recognize the state de facto, establishment of national volunteer organizations, participation in national ceremonies, and an increasing readiness to serve in the army. Thus, the resistance might even indicate a connection to and influence (potentially, at least) of the general Israeli culture on the haredi individual.
Therefore, in order to understand some of the reasons for the haredi resistance, and even predict what future trends it may follow, a change of perspective is needed – we should look inwards, into haredi society and its fears of change.
Interpreting this resistance as an intercultural clash grossly overlooks a deeper understanding of these processes. We actually need to see the fact that many haredim adopt a behavior of resistance as a call for help.
Now, as the elections are approaching, we should ensure that the haredi integration is on the table in every coalition formation. The Israeli government should promote deeper and more sophisticated policies of integration, which understand the fears and threats that confront of this special community.
We should find a way to make them feel protected during every stage that the integration process entails. By doing this, we will encourage the processes that may actually lead toward productive integration of the haredim into the Israeli society and economy.The writer is a Fulbright fellow and doctoral candidate at Columbia University, New York. He served as a faculty member at the Mandel Leadership Institute and as the research manager of the Institute for Social Justice at Bet Morasha College. He holds a master’s degree in public policy and a master’s degree in education, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.