For Women, An Israel Divided

TEL AVIV, Israel — With twenty-seven hours of non-stop travel between me and the moment I pulled my suitcase into the dewy Michigan morning outside my home, I sit around a conference table in a room with three walls and one floor to ceiling window. Outside the sun sets over the Mediterranean sea. Inside a professor by the name of Dan Ben-David presents an overview of the state of Israel’s domestic affairs. Over clinking dishes the handful of journalists with whom I share the table, all of us members of a delegation hosted by the American Israel Friendship League, take notes and probe the professor, a representative of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, with questions. 

Buried about three quarters of the way into the presentation is a revelation we will hear echoed throughout the week we spend touring the Jewish state: despite the dangers from without, it is from within that Israel faces one of it’s greatest modern challenges.

Long considered one of the most progressive places on earth, Israel was already using a virtually gender and ethnic-blind military draft when the United States was gridlocked in civil rights turmoil. Now at least one key Israeli demographic would like to change all that, relegating even the nation’s female fighter pilots to second-class citizenship and, quite literally, the back of the bus. And that group, perhaps surprisingly to some, is Jewish, not Muslim.

Though the Ultra Orthodox Haredim — a hebrew term that translates to “those who tremble” [before G-d] — currently make up only eight percent of the population they are Israel’s fastest growing demographic. With nearly twice the fertility rate of the next fastest growing group, Muslims, and roughly three and a half times that of non-Haredi Jews and Christian Arabs, it is only a matter of time before Haredi families are Israel’s majority, and that matter of time is growing short. In the first decade of the 2000s alone the number of students enrolled in Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox schools rose by 51%, while at the same time enrollment in secular state schools dropped by 3%. Already, Haredi make up 20% of Israel’s student body.

As a group, Haredim are fervent adherents to the laws of the Torah and the keepers of centuries-old cultural traditions and religious knowledge. Sixty-five years ago four-hundred Haredi men were exempted from military conscription by Israel’s first president, David Ben-Gurion, in an attempt to preserve these things, many of which that were all but lost as a result of the holocaust. As Jews fled the rest of the world for Israel it was the Ultra Orthodox that held the keys to Jewish history and tradition, they were the families that knew the verbal histories and the teachings of Rabbis who were killed merely for being Rabbis. Their contribution to society at the time was to be religious study, and that was enough. Today however, the military exemption and concessions that were subsequently made in both the education and welfare systems to help accommodate the group are backfiring. Not only are girls and women suffering at the hands of outdated ideals, unable to compete in a modern world where the education needed to secure a livable income has rapidly evolved, even Haredi boys do not study core curriculum such as math and english past eighth grade.

They are not necessarily uneducated, but differently educated, turning their attention instead to Judaism’s ancient religious texts as their fathers and grandfathers have done before them. For a majority it is a discipline that will take a lifetime. In Israel less than half of Haredi men between the ages of 35 and 54 are unemployed, most spend their days in religious scholarship instead. There, they learn the literal word of G-d as well as the interpretation of that word over many centuries of Jewish tradition; information which has been funneled down through generations and brought back to Israel by the original four-hundred. 

Immersed in the teachings of their Rabbis and backed by an upbringing in which the daily activities of men and women are oft segregated, with women taking a back seat — both literally and figuratively — to men, most Haredim emerge from childhood ardent protectors of their cultural traditions. Unfortunately, it’s a culture in which leaders still teach a belief system built on the tenet that equality for women will, as one such Rabbi put it last year, “harm the quality of life of the nation and society.” And it’s not just within Haredim communities where Haredi activists would like women to remain within their version of traditional gender roles. Just as the non-Haredi woman who became the spectacle of a modern Rosa-Parks scenario found out, many Haredi men would like to see women throughout Israel abiding by the cultural norms observed within Haredi communities. Norms that go as far as to relegate women to the opposite side of the street as men when walking in public. This, despite the fact that Israel’s Haredi women are more likely to be employed than their male counterparts; not the least of the reasons for which is a need to support their families while the men study.

But for Haredi women the word “support” in this sense is used loosely at best. Due to the lack of modern education provided by the Ultra Orthodox schools the wages they earn are meager. They raise large families in crushing poverty; feeding, clothing, and housing their children mostly on small government welfare checks. Residing in de facto ghettos, choosing to remain largely cut off from the rest of Israeli society to prevent corruption among their ranks, there is staggering irony in how similar these self-imposed conditions are to those that have been imposed on the Jewish people by their enemies throughout history. Streets leading into Haredi neighborhoods sometimes bear signs asking women to dress “modestly”, though modesty inside and outside Haredi neighborhoods are two very different things and harassment of those who dare trespass in the wrong garb is not unheard of — even, as one group found out just days before my own plane touched down in Israel last month, if they are Haredi themselves.

For all their self-imposed segregation however, Haredi communities aren’t completely cut off, tucked in the furthest reaches of civilization as you may imagine. Peppered throughout the country, Haredi neighborhoods are islands inside Israel’s towns and cities. Sometimes positioned in close proximity to other Haredi communities, but just as often not. While there may have been a strategy to their locations at one time it is not evident today. One such neighborhood stood only a few kilometers from the hotel I called home during our time in Jerusalem — a hotel directly across the street from a non-kosher cafe in which I enjoyed a bowl of bacon-pea fettucine, no less. And these communities are growing. Expanding in something akin to America’s urban sprawl. Termed “Haredization” in Israel, the rapidly increasing Haredi population is swallowing up the modern, sometimes even secular neighborhoods, that surround them. And while the geographical pressure may be more easily seen, it’s a manifestation of a larger movement, a shift in both Israel’s public sentiment and its population demographics.

Today, the pressure for Israel’s society at large to conform to the standards Haredi families abide at home is strong, and only expected to increase as this generation grows into the voting adults of tomorrow.  Coming of age in a time when their communities are feeling the squeeze of a government and general population who would like to see reforms to the programs that directly enable the Haredi way of life, some youth are already joining their elders in clashes and protests against not only women, but police and even military officers. The question for Israel’s women now is not if they will have to mount an opposition to an internal attack on their freedoms, but when. And perhaps more significant, whether or not a minority resistance will be strong enough to maintain a culture of equality that is only as old as the infant nation itself against an attacker that is many thousands of years its senior. 

Many believe it is only from within that Haredi sentiment can be shifted. Fortunately, though few, advocates who are intimately familiar with being Haredim are not impossible to find. Adina Bar Shalom is one such example, having grown up the daughter of an Ultra Orthodox Rabbi. Pulled from school at the age of fourteen and sent for sewing lessons, when she wanted to seek a degree in psychology as an adult her father and husband joined together in opposition. She ultimately compromised, studying design and fashion instead, but it was an economics lecture by the same professor with whom we shared the conference room on our first night in Israel that would later spur her to action — a lecture that was not dissimilar to the one we heard. Now the founder of the Haredi College of Jerusalem, an educationally-rigorous institute that boasts more than 600 graduates (more than half of whom are women) Bar Shalom has been an unlikely and outspoken advocate for reform to the traditional Haredi education and career paths in Israel. Though her work has been poorly accepted by many within the community, it is also widely hailed as just the type of work that has the capacity to rewrite Israel’s future.