Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Back in Black: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Revisited

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By Amotz Asa-El


“The silent majority might have to revolt” warned Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in a public address that immediately made national headlines. He was referring to what he portrayed as abuse of the Israeli taxpayer by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector.

Though in his own famously hedonistic city the typically black-clad ultra-Orthodox citizen remains relatively rare, Huldai lambasted the government for feeding that community’s “separatism and ignorance.”

Speculation concerning the retired Air Force General’s aspirations and prospects as a national leader subsided quickly, but his statement and its reception served as a reminder that the ideological, political, social, and economic cleavages between mainstream Israel and the growing ultra-Orthodox population threaten Israel’s national cohesion.

The mayor focused his remarks on the ultra-Orthodox education system, which feeds off the national budget while refusing to commit to teach even a minimally secular core curriculum of English and math. Yet education is but one aspect of the situation, whose most potent component is military service, which the ultra-Orthodox have been largely avoiding with the acquiescence of Israeli governments from both right and left.

It doesn’t take a war hero like Huldai, a fighter pilot who shot down four enemy planes during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to resent ultra-Orthodoxy’s sweeping deferments from service in the IDF. Such disenchantment is shared by most IDF soldiers, and even more so by the modern Orthodox, who seek particularly demanding service in crack units as part of what they consider a religious duty.

Beyond the military, Israelis who take pride in their country’s technological success and economic drive are confounded by the spectacle of vast ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and, indeed, entire cities where prosperity is not even a goal. These are typically characterised by bearded men wearing black coats and fedora hats spending their days in local religious academies tucked between faceless and poorly gardened apartment blocks as their head-covered wives push strollers, while surrounded by three, four or five, and often six or seven frolicking boys wearing ear-locks, and girls in long skirts.

Ultra-Orthodox Israel’s asceticism would have been fine with most Israelis had it been self-financed. The problem is that it depends on the middle class’ taxes. The formula whereby thousands of fathers spend decades studying religion rather than acquiring and practising a profession has spent itself. With women expected to raise as many kids as their wombs will bear while working only in the kind of low-income occupations that their rabbis consider religiously “safe,” even typically very frugal ultra-Orthodox households simply had to seek new ways to make ends meet. That is where their politicians came into the picture, shaping the relationship that secular Israelis like Huldai now decry.


The origins of ultra-Orthodox Judaism lie in 19th century Europe, where the Jewish faith was being challenged from within in ways it had not encountered since the dawn of Christianity.

The emergence of Jewish secularism on the one hand, and a religious reform movement on the other, put the rabbis on the defensive and led them to circle their wagons. While thousands of Jews in Germany, Austria and Hungary ceased to observe the Sabbath, eat kosher and circumcise their baby boys, most rabbis in Poland, Lithuania and Russia fostered a strategy of condemning change and raising partitions between observant and non-observant Jews, lest Judaism as they understood it die. And that was well before the rise of what most of the rabbis considered an even greater threat to the Jewish faith: Zionism.

The notion of a Jewish national restoration was anathema to most rabbis, because they thought that God, not man, was to redeem the Jews. The result was a sweeping prohibition on cooperating with, let alone joining, the Zionist enterprise.

A handful of rabbis defied this ban, and thus gave birth to what is now Jewish modern-Orthodoxy. But the vast majority of observant Jews shunned Zionism, and stayed put in Europe. Consequently, most ultra-Orthodox Jews perished in the Holocaust, as did the hundreds of synagogues, schools and academies they had frequented, as well as nearly the entire generation of sages they had followed.

It was against this grim backdrop that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first PM, agreed soon after the state’s establishment to grant a limited amount of military-service deferments for talented rabbinical students. Though himself avowedly secular, Israel’s founding father was persuaded by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to help them restore what they referred to as “the Torah world that Hitler destroyed.”

At the same time, ultra-Orthodox parties ran for the Knesset, repeatedly winning about 5% of the electorate, but opting to remain in opposition lest they implicitly identify with the Jewish state. Back in their still-small neighbourhoods, ultra-Orthodox rabbis picked up from where their ancestors had left off in Europe, nurturing an introverted lifestyle that saw modernity as a threat and the Jewish state as an aberration. However, when it came to budget votes, the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers usually abstained, thus paying respect to the state that extended them a conciliatory hand.


A live-and-let-live arrangement worked well for some 30 years, until Menachem Begin unseated Labor in 1977 and offered ultra-Orthodoxy a new deal. “Join my coalition,” suggested Begin, “and I will expand military deferments for your students.” Preferring Begin’s traditionalism to what they saw as the left’s heresies, ultra-Orthodoxy’s rabbis concurred, though they insisted that their legislators serve as deputy ministers rather than as full members in the secular Jewish state’s cabinets.

They did, however, take up the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, which has been headed by a succession of six ultra-Orthodox lawmakers over the past 33 years. In this pivotal position they secured increased budgeting for their own school system, though it strictly prohibits its graduates from serving in the army. And since their population kept growing, ultra-Orthodox politicians increasingly demanded, and routinely obtained, additional social funding for causes ranging from property-tax breaks for their young couples, to increased child allowances for families with more than four children.

Add to this the emergence in the 1980s of Shas, the much larger ultra-Orthodox party that catered for traditional Jews from Middle Eastern origins, and you get the kind of clout that mainstream Israelis have often come to resent. The more its influence grew, the more political confidence Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy gained. Having long won the right to run its own neighbourhoods semi-autonomously – for instance, it is inconceivable that a car would be seen driving in them on the Sabbath – they began elbowing their way into the rest of the country. For instance, they succeeded in wresting the Chief Rabbinate from the modern Orthodox and imposing a separation of the sexes within some of the national bus company’s service lines.

Now numbering, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, up to 800,000 people, half of them 15-years-old and younger, and with ultra-Orthodox mothers bearing on average more than seven children, the overall community is growing annually by 7%. This means it may double itself within less than a generation, and come to comprise one fifth of the Jewish state about which its leaders remain ambivalent at best to this day.


This is the backdrop against which Huldai spoke, tapping a political wellspring that in recent decades has repeatedly given rise to militantly secular parties. Understandably, then, many fear Israel is on the verge of a Kulturkampf. It is not.

The current formula of minimum work and duty combined with nationally financed religious study is Judaically unprecedented and economically untenable.

For centuries Jews nurtured scholarship and financed intellectuals, but only when those were exceptionally gifted. Full-time study was never a way of life for the masses, and in fact many of Judaism’s greatest sages were gainfully employed professionals – from farmers and artisans to merchants and doctors. Today, too, non-Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews can be seen daily working full-time, from Antwerp’s diamond exchange to Manhattan’s electronics stores. In Israel, however, only one-third of ultra-Orthodox men aged 35 to 55 are employed, and the average income of an ultra-Orthodox male is less than half that of the rest of Israeli males. The sight of an ultra-Orthodox doctor, lawyer, engineer or banker is rare.

Regardless of the politics, fiscally this structure no longer stands. This was first made plain to the rabbis by the man who had previously been their ally, Benjamin Netanyahu. As finance minister in 2003, Netanyahu slashed by more than 50% the child allowances that had become for many ultra-Orthodox families a major source of income, exceeding US$2,000 monthly for a family of ten children. At the same time, then-PM Ariel Sharon manoeuvred the ultra-Orthodox parties into the opposition for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.

The results of this shock treatment were instructive.

Birthrates in major ultra-Orthodox cities dropped some 13% within five years, which meant that ultra-Orthodox parents are prepared to resort to some kind of family planning when circumstances demand it. And the circumstances are such that in Bnei Brak, a city outside Tel Aviv where a fifth of ultra-Orthodox Israelis reside, 60% of the population is below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, major rabbis quietly conceded that they must shorten the distance between their flock and the labour markets.

Without much fanfare, little colleges began to sprout in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, first offering courses in bookkeeping, then in accounting, then in computers. Now some also offer law degrees. And ultra-Orthodox women, until now typically employed as low paid teachers, are now encouraged to take up more specialised professions, from computer science to psychology, a field once derided by ultra-Orthodoxy as based on lies, fantasies, and the troubles produced by modernity and secularism.

New legislation now allows ultra-Orthodox men to join the workforce at age 23 in turn for either a shortened military service or an alternative civil service. Increasingly that is what they do. That in turn prompted the army to set up special units for ultra-Orthodox men. Their numbers are still modest, but they are growing, already numbering several battalions.


Less out of conviction than necessity, ultra-Orthodoxy is joining the Jewish state. It lets women fulfil themselves professionally, it sends more and more of its men to pursue careers and even serve in the army. It even speaks an up-to-date Hebrew, rendering irrelevant the original rabbinical insistence that the holy tongue remain encased in the synagogues, libraries and tombstones where it had been trapped since antiquity.

It follows that all current forecasts concerning the future relationship between the Jewish state and its ultra-Orthodox community are superficial at best; today it is the ultra-Orthodox livelihood that is changing, and tomorrow it will be the ultra-Orthodox mindset. It was, after all, but two centuries ago that every Jew, including Mayor Huldai’s ancestors, was ultra-Orthodox.

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