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The Manna Stops Falling

September 30th, 2012by Gershom Gorenberg · 1 Comment · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox is a diversion. It’s more important for their kids to learn math and English

Gershom Gorenberg

Prospect Magazine in the UK has posted my portrait of the crisis facing Israel’s haredim – and all the rest of us.

“The system just isn’t relevant to life,” says Asher Gold. He wears black trousers, a black velvet skullcap, and a pale lavender shirt, one shade from white, one shade away from the standard dress of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish male. The other four young men at the table are more circumspect about dissidence; they wear white shirts. The café where they’ve chosen to meet me is in a courtyard one flight down from street level in a Jerusalem commercial district: a place both public and removed from sight, appropriate for scathing words.

Gold, 25, is talking about the accepted course of ultra-Orthodox life in Israel, in which men devote much or all of adulthood to religious study rather than to making a living. “At some stage a person looks at the situation and says, ‘This just cannot continue,’” he says. “‘No one is throwing loaves of bread from heaven. You have to go to work.’”

“The manna,” says Elimelech, another of the men, “isn’t coming down.”

“There was an ideal society, a society that can’t exist in the real world, and yet it existed,” says a third.

“People lived in a utopia,” says Gold, “until the reality shattered.”

Other Israelis would dismiss the assertion that ultra-Orthodox society was ever a utopia, noting that the manna that feeds it comes not from heaven, but from the government, and that too much is still falling. But they would not disagree that ultra-Orthodoxy as lived in Israel has become unsustainable.

Ultra-Orthodoxy is a subculture whose members live by a stringent version of Jewish religious law and belief and who seek to keep surrounding society at arm’s length. The means of being a people apart include dressing distinctively, living in self-segregated neighbourhoods and maintaining separate schools, where sacred texts are the main subject of study. Today’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, marry early and have many children. In Israel, where the military draft is universal for other Jewish men and most Jewish women, the ultra-Orthodox have been largely exempt.

This summer the issue of everyone bearing an “equal burden” for national defence has boiled over in Israeli politics. Yet the conscription argument may be a diversion from the real economic and political crisis. The haredi community is overwhelmingly poor, underemployed, and dependent on the rest of Israel. It is also growing rapidly, creating an ever-larger weight for wider society to carry. Unless ultra-Orthodox education changes and haredim are integrated into the workplace, the Israeli economy could collapse. “We could lose the country,” as a leading Israeli economist, Dan Ben-David, warns.

At the margins of ultra-Orthodox society itself, a sense of impending economic disaster is growing. Yet a change of direction is fraught with challenges. It requires haredi society to brave integration. It requires the state to spend more money, not less, on the ultra-Orthodox in the near term. The longer the change is delayed, the more politically difficult it will be to carry out. …

Read the rest here.

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