Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Conundrum

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Conundrum

© David Burton 2016

Haredim in IDF


     Ever since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Ultra-Orthodox community, commonly referred to as the haredi community, has received very special concessions from the government of Israel. Haredim (plural of haredi), a Hebrew expression meaning “trembling before God”, are projected to grow to 18 percent of Israel’s population by 2030, from 11 percent in 2010.

     Many Israelis have long bridled over the state privileges handed to the haredim. Non-haredi Israelis complained vociferously about the facts that: haredis weren’t obligated to perform military service; didn’t work and therefore paid no taxes; received government welfare because they were unemployed; and were encouraged to raise large families, at taxpayers’ expense, since their welfare checks increased with every child they had.

     But, changing the so-called secular-religious status quo in Israel carried significant political risk for coalition governments, which had to rely on the support of Ultra-Orthodox partners to stay in power.[1] In 2012-2013, it appeared that Ultra-Orthodox political power in Israel was finally on the wane.

     In January 2013, Israel held national elections that resulted in a government which, for the first time in many years, did not include the party of the Ultra-Orthodox. At the forefront of this election was the hugely culturally contentious issue of abolishing the historical exemption of Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the draft that allowed them to pursue religious education.

     In 2014, the Israeli government abolished the 65-year-old legislation that exempted the Ultra-Orthodox from mandatory service in the IDF in an attempt to bring together a more secular society, thus leading to fresh tensions between the government and the Ultra-Orthodox religious group. [2]]

     Many ultra-Orthodox were opposed to haredi men serving in the IDF and, in some cases, ultra-Orthodox extremists even attacked haredi soldiers as noted in the following report. “. . . {T}hree Haredi soldiers were attacked in broad daylight in the heart of Jerusalem by Haredi hooligans . . .
     “One of the soldiers was on his way to {an in-depth orthodox religious lecture} in the Meah Shearim neighborhood {an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood} when he was attacked and had to be rescued by special police units operating in the area.   . . .
     “Several Haredi soldiers told reporters . . . how the violent reactions to their IDF uniforms had necessitated changing into civilian clothing when traveling on trains; others said they could not return to their homes and were forced to spend Shabbat {the Jewish Sabbath} in hostels that cater to Haredi soldiers considered outcasts by their families.” ((Ref. 3) )

     Many, if not most, Israelis were outraged at the viciousness of the haredi opposition to the Ultra-Orthodox serving in the IDF. As one Israeli Holocaust survivor was quoted as saying: “How can anyone utter these words and go on living with himself? It takes a lot of chutzpah to live in Israel under the protection of Hashem {God} and His emissaries, the IDF soldiers, and instead of being grateful, throw stones and resort to vicious name-calling.” (Ref. 4)

     However, “In late April {2015}, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively reversed {the} law to impose jail time on members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi community who dodge the draft.  . . .
     “The reversal {of the short-lived law} was one condition of a deal the prime minister forged with United Torah Judaism to bring the Haredi political party into the governing coalition he was attempting to assemble . . . following Israeli elections in March. Netanyahu’s concession is a symbol of renewed Haredi power in the new Israeli government . . .” (Ref. 5)

     The ultra-Orthodox have historically shown a dictatorial readiness to impose strict regulations on their own communities as well as on anyone coming into contact with their members. In the town of Beit Shemesh and elsewhere across the country, some Ultra-Orthodox Jews have tried to impose a kind of communal piety—a strict code of behavior that includes gender segregation on buses, with men in the front and women in the back. For most Israelis, this zealousness is off-putting. Founded by secular Jews who envisaged a modern, egalitarian state, Israel has all the trappings of a liberal society: progressive laws and cutting-edge universities, women in bikinis and women in business and politics. But it also has an entrenched ultra-Orthodox community that has historically shunned modernity and views the world through the eyes of 19th and 18th century European Judaism.[6]

     Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been extremely resistant to change. They dress in the same outfits as their 19th-century forebears—dark suits, frock coats, and wide-brimmed hats. And they hew fastidiously to practices that were laid out in texts thousands of years ago.[6]

     As of 2013, most ultra-Orthodox Jews lacked the skills to work in a modern economy, having studied little or no math and science beyond primary school (their curriculum focused almost entirely on religious texts such as the Torah and Talmud). As a result, more than 60% were living below the poverty line, compared with 12% among non-Haredi Jews. Haredi men were on a path that proved hard to reroute: instead of employment, they engaged in lifelong Torah study and received support from the dole. According to labor surveys, some 65% of working-age men in the Ultra-Orthodox community didn’t have jobs and didn’t want them, preferring to spend their days in the seminary. The cities in which they lived in were some of the poorest in the country.[6]

     The net effect as the haredi community expanded was that the burdens of taxation and conscription fell on fewer and fewer Israelis. Secular Israelis joked that 1/3 of the country served in the military, 1/3 participated in the workforce, and 1/3 paid taxes - but it was the same 1/3 of the country that fulfilled these obligations.[6]

     In some parts of the haredi community, terrorist type violence has appeared. A small minority of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremist have taken to murdering Palestinians as well as other Jews who do not live in conformity with their rules and principles. In 2015, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha was heavily damaged by an arson attack and a passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was found scrawled in red spray paint on a wall outside the church. Israeli police quickly arrested 16 Jewish settler youths who were suspected of involvement in the attack. The youths arrested were all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements.[7] Such attacks are widely condemned throughout the entire nation, including the vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox.

     In an unprecedented action, the Chief Rabbis of Israel placed a massive ad on the front page of the Jerusalem Post on August 4, 2015 strongly condemning the then recent violence in the country. The advertisement which condemned violence against both Jews and non-Jews, was also published in Hebrew in Israel’s other major papers. The move came less than a week after unrest following the killing of a Palestinian child, and the fatal stabbing attack at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade.

Are Changes Coming?

     After Israel’s 2013 elections, changes began to appear for the haredi community. One of the new government’s top priorities was the easing of the ultra-Orthodox drag on the economy.

     Because the haredi value full-time study above any paid occupation and rejects Israel’s obligatory military service, many of their men have remained outside mainstream Israeli society. Only about 46 percent of working-age men in the community were employed in 2011, the most recent year available, compared with 78 percent for all Israeli adult males. [8]

     “Income comes from government stipends, charity and, in many cases, a working wife. Unlike men, some haredi women are educated in work-oriented fields such as teaching and software programming after they get 12 years of religious and secular education.
      - - -
     “The opportunity to overcome entrenched political opposition to getting more haredi men into the labor force arose after elections {in 2013}. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a government without two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that had been part of almost every ruling coalition for the {previous} 30 years.
      - - -
     “Facing budgetary pressures, the government . . . also cut child allowances that had helped support many large families in the community, increasing the economic incentive for haredi men to start making a livelihood.
      - - -
     “The Economy Ministry {also} earmarked 500 million shekels ($143 million) over . . . five years for programs to give haredi men the needed skills {to enter the workforce}.
     “Included {were} programs to offer vocational training, job placement services and employment counseling.  . . .
      - - -
     “Even with the new vocational tools, cultural impediments may discourage some employers from hiring haredi men. Companies may have to take into account kosher dietary laws in cafeterias and requests for time set aside for daily prayers, as well as traditions of modesty that discourage associating with any members of the opposite sex outside their families.” (Ref. 8)

     In one recent example of the ongoing change process, “Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Alphabet Inc. are among companies supporting a venture backed by the U.S. government and private money that is aimed at getting more ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israel’s burgeoning technology industry. It’s reported that today there are at least 6,000 haredi engineers in Israel, from almost zero three years ago. [9]

     “Israel’s tech industry is investing in haredi men and women to help fill a gap of qualified software engineers, as the country experiences a tech slowdown brought by almost 10,000 vacant posts for such roles.” (Ref. 9)

     There is growing evidence that at least a segment of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community is changing (for the better). “Younger haredim, while remaining passionately committed to orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.
     “. . . Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time. But the proportion of haredi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year {2015} it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent, and the government hopes to raise it to 63 percent by 2020. [Emphasis mine]
     “As for haredi women, {l}ast year, 73.1 percent of haredi women worked, up from 61.5 percent just five years earlier; that’s already far above the government’s target of 63 percent by 2020. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of haredim in college jump from 2011-2015 by 83 percent, to 11,000, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “. . . {A} new survey . . . found 83 percent of haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as haredi girls’ schools already do.
      - - -
     “On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 haredim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all haredi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher.  . . .
     “Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling.  . . . {U}ntil last month, Israel’s highest rabbinical court had never included a judge who served in the army. But following last month’s round of appointments, fully half its judges are now veterans, including two Sephardi haredim and one Ashkenazi haredi.  . . .
     “. . . Army service no longer disqualifies haredim for prominent rabbinical positions.   . . .
     “Admittedly. These changes in haredi society won’t lead to changes in attitude at the top anytime soon. The leading haredi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create ‘new Jews’ in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.
     “But younger haredim grew up in a very different world – one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and the state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome haredim without trying to make them stop being haredi.  . . .
     “Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting.  . . . Developments in haredi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 10)

     In yet one more illustration of changes taking place within the haredi community, in early 2015, Israel's first political party created by ultra-Orthodox Jewish women was running a “novel campaign for parliament: no media ads or endorsements by key rabbinical authorities, just word-of-mouth recommendations and faith.
     “Yet the fact that women in the Haredi sect are running at all is historic and radical for a community where politics — and decision-making — are traditionally left to the menfolk.
      - - -
     “. . . {The party is} called Bezchutan: Haredi Women Making Change. They're demanding that the government — and their own rabbis — provide Haredi women with the same rights and benefits as other Israeli women.
      - - -
     “The party's supporters say it is brave step forward in a society where rabbis prohibit their community members from owning a TV or surfing the Internet, and where women — usually the breadwinners while their husbands focus on religious learning — are expected to keep a low public profile.” (Ref. 11)

     As Bob Dylan wrote and sang back in 1962,

     The order is rapidly fadin’,
     And the first one now will later be last,
     For the times they are a-changin’

     It would appear that his lyrics now apply to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.


  1. Ultra-Orthodox Jews To Serve In Israeli Military; Law Approved By Israeli Cabinet, Jeffrey Heller,
    Huffington Post: Religion, 7 July 2013.
  2. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Soldiers In Israel Come Under Attack From Fellow Community Members ,
    The Huffington Post UK/ Associated Press, The Huffington Post: United Kingdom, 18 July 2013.
  3. Hateful Rhetoric, Violent Encounters Roil Israel’s Religious Communities,Steve K. Walz, The Jewish Press,
    Pages 1 and 3, 19 July 2013.
  4. The Real Heresy, Bezalel Fixler, The Jewish Press: Letters to the Editor, Page 7, 19 July 2013.
  5. Ultra-Orthodox Celebrate Rollback of Israel Draft Law, Naomi Zeveloff, Forward, Page 6, 6 May 2015.
  6. Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Problem, Dan Ephron, The Daily Beast: Newsweek, 2 January 2012.
  7. Israeli youths arrested after arson attack on Catholic church, Associated Press, New Yok Post, 18 June 2015.
  8. Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Do the Math in Bid to Enter Workforce, Calev Ben-David and Alisa Odenheimer,, 22 January 2014.
  9. Google and the U.S. Government Are Helping Orthodox Jews Get Tech Jobs, Gwen Ackerman,,
    11 August 2016.
  10. An Auspicious Haredi Generation Gap, Evelyn Gordon, The Jewish Press, Page 6, 8 August 2016.
  11. Israel's ultra-Orthodox Haredi women form political party, Michele Chabin, USA Today, 28 February 2015.
  12. The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan, BOB DYLAN, Accessed 15 August 2016.


  26 August 2016 {Article 263; Israel_28}    
Go back to the top of the page