Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Haredim Conundrum

Bernard Avishai at TPMCafe reports on a telling story about an Intel facility in Israel. Last Sabbath, ultra-orthodox Haredi rabbis and their disciples descended upon the Intel compound and vandalized it. After a meeting with the Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, who Avishai calls "rightists tied to Haredi voters," the groups came to an agreement. Only 20 of the usual 120 employees would come to work on Saturdays and none of them would be Jewish. But, as Avishai informs, the compromise apparently did not go far enough and the Haredi "mobs were back yesterday demanding a complete shut down."

The Haredi Jews present a difficult conundrum for the Jewish State of Israel. On one hand, they claim that studying Torah is their profession. And, after all, what Jew can be against that? But on the other hand, studying Torah is their profession. In other words, they don't work. According to data from the Israeli and Housing Construction Ministry, approximately 70% of Haredi men are unemployed.

Not only do they fail to contribute to society in any material way, but Israel society actually has to pay them through various welfare programs. In fact, according to Meirav Arlosoroff, the Haredi Jews are offered such a large subsidy to study Torah that they have no economic incentive to seek regular employment. While there has been discrimination against the Haredim in the workplace, it is clear many are quite happy living off the largess of the state.

Beyond economics, the Haredim conundrum plays directly into the Israeli struggle of how to define the Jewish State and Judaism more generally. Ask a typical Haredi rabbi in Meah Shearim and he'll define Judaism in exactly the same way a rabbi would have in 17th century Eastern Europe. Obviously, most Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) have trouble with such an uncompromising definition.

The problem is not in the difference in opinion, but in the suggestion that Haredim maintain the sole prerogative to define Judaism to the exclusion of other equally-valid possibilities. It is this belief in their exclusive right to define Judaism that motivates their "defense" of the Sabbath, as exemplified with the protests at Intel (or, for anyone secular who has ventured too deeply into Haredim territory, the all-too-real threat of rock throwing).

I visited Israel for the first time this summer after an extended stay in the Arab world. Coincidentally, I visited at the same time the Haredim were protesting a parking lot that was open on the Sabbath. It is odd to admit that, after exploring countless Arab neighborhoods, I felt the most unwanted when visiting Haredi areas. But it is downright sad to admit that, after visiting so many mosques, I felt the most alien when visiting the epicenter of Judaism - the Wailing Wall - surrounded by Haredim, Jews that I do not fully understand nor fully understand me.

Below, I've added a picture from my excursion into Meah Shearim. Among other announcements, a flier exclaims, that people are "murdering" the Sabbath and calls for protests.

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