11/18/13 - an unexpected trend in israel

In today's selection -- the Haredim, a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, is now 10 percent of its population. As the New York Times recently reported. "Israel has been consumed in recent months with the challenge of integrating the insular, swelling ultra-Orthodox minority, known as Haredim, into society. ... The low number of ultra-Orthodox men with jobs ... [has] a dire effect on the economy in terms of productivity, taxes and the drain caused by welfare payments. Because of Orthodox men's commitment to full-time Torah study and a fear of assimilation, only a little more than 4 in 10 of them work, less than half the rate of other Jewish men in Israel, and their average salaries are 57 percent of other Jewish men in the country. Nearly 60 percent of Haredi families live in poverty, and by 2050 they are expected to make up more than a quarter of Israel's population":

"The Hebrew word haredi means, literally, 'fear and trembling.' In today's Israel, it refers to ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose dour dress and fervid quaking before God hearken to bygone centuries and distant lands where their ancestors lived during two millennia of Diaspora. To the alarm of non-haredi Jews, the Western Wall [in Jerusalem] has been effectively usurped and converted into a haredi synagogue. On Shabbat, tens of thousands of bowing, trembling, rejoicing, chanting, praising, praying black-frocked men in broad-rimmed hats and ritual fringes engulf it, save for a small fenced section reserved for women -- that is, for women who dare approach it. Females who insist on a Jewish woman's right to don prayer shawls and phylacteries -- or the ultimate haredi horror: to actually touch and read from a Torah scroll -- may be spat upon by haredi men, who have flung chairs at the brazen blasphemers, and be called whores by screaming rabbis who try to drown out their Sabbath songs.

"Women, extremist haredim believe, should be home readying the Shabbat meal for their pious men and their burgeoning families. Although still a minority, Israel's haredim are relentlessly bent on changing that status. Their simple tactic: procreation. Haredi families average nearly seven children, and frequently hit double digits. Their multiplying offspring are considered both the solution to modern Jews, who defile their religion, and as the best defense against Palestinians, who threaten to outproliferate Jews in their historic homeland.

"The Jerusalem daily Haaretz reports a haredi man who boasts 450 descendents. Their soaring numbers force Israeli politicians to include haredi parties in coalitions that rule Israeli governments. Such clout has won the ultra-Orthodox privileges that elicit howls from other Israelis: exemption from military service (supposedly, they defend Judaism by incessant study of Torah) and a government allowance for each Israeli child brought into the world. Until 2009, this subsidy actually rose for each new birth, until the cost of the escalating demographics shocked even conservative Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who modified it to a flat rate. Any dampening effect on haredi reproduction is not yet evident at the Western Wall, where thousands of young boys with black yarmulkes and bouncing sidelocks swirl around their dancing, bearded fathers.

"A waxing moon, yellow as Jerusalem limestone, climbs high above the walled Old City, and haredim begin to stream homeward -- on foot; no motorized conveyance allowed on Shabbat -- to their pregnant wives and their daughters. Most head into Mea She'arirn, one of Jerusalem's biggest neighborhoods, which is visibly deteriorating under the pressure of so many people. Torah scholarship pays little or nothing; haredi wives mostly work at whatever jobs they can sandwich between child-rearing, and more than one-third of the families are below the poverty line. Vestibules and staircases of shabby high-rises are jammed with baby strollers. The air whiffs of overflowing garbage, overstressed sewers, and -- surprising for a place where no vehicles can circulate on Shabbat -- diesel exhaust. Because many haredim insist that the Israel Electric Corporation's nonstop coalfired plants commit a sacrilege by working through Sabbath, before sundown they crank up hundreds of portable generators in Mea She'arim basements to keep the lights on. The traditional z'mirot heard around Sabbath tables are sung over their dull roar. ...

"Projections of which side will win this demographic derby [between Isreali Jews and Palestinians] -- or lose, depending on point of view -- get hazy. Historically, much of Israel's growth has depended on immigration of Jews from elsewhere. More than a million Russians arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the trend of Jews making aliyah to Israel has slowed dramatically. Far more Jews now move from Israel to the United States than vice versa. Nevertheless, as the birthrate of haredim increases exponentially, Jews may [keep their majority versus the rapidly increasing Palestinian population]. At least for a while."


Alan Weisman




Little, Brown & Company


Copyright 2013 by Alan Weisman


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