The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.
Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.
While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.
The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.
One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.
In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture...