The Haredim: Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel

I was disturbed this morning by a BBC news report on the behaviour of ultra-orthodox Jews, or Haredim, in Israel.  Of course I don’t trust everything I hear on the BBC, and I discount for its instinctive anti-Israeli bias.  But a quick check of Google shows similar stories elsewhere, and they seem to be credible.

I have always been an instinctive, though not uncritical, supporter of Israel.  We in the UK have a certain historic responsibility for the existence of the State of Israel.  The country is an oasis of freedom and democracy in a region otherwise controlled by despotic governments, and it remains to be seen whether the “Arab Spring” will make any long-term difference.  On that basis alone, Israel deserves our support.  But the BBC report this morning tends to undermine that positive view.

I should perhaps add that I went to Jerusalem earlier this year, and visited the Holy Sites.  On that visit, I heard to my surprise that there were large numbers in Israel of ultra-orthodox Jews who don’t work, but spend all their time studying the Torah, and contemplating the numinous and the ineffable.

These Haredim, as they are known, amount to some half million or more in Israel, from a total population of around 7.5 million — a significant minority.  And it is reported that 60% of Haredi men choose not to work, as a result of which 55% of them are below the poverty line.  Women can work, but only under very limited and restrictive conditions.

I find this astonishing.  Most religions seem to expect that the “good life” entails contributing in some way to society, and seeking as far as possible to provide for one’s family.  Perhaps if these Haredim spent a little more time on the book of Exodus, they would read in the Ten Commandments: “Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work”.  Somehow I don’t think that study and contemplation would have fulfilled Moses’ idea of “work”.  Saint Paul, who of course was a zealous and observant Jew before he converted to Christianity, wrote: “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8).

Choosing to live on welfare, leaving your family in poverty, so that you can spend all your time pursuing your personal interests, seems to me the height of irresponsibility and selfishness.  It is no different, in principle, from the British layabout who spends all day on the sofa watching television with cans of lager and a packet of crisps.  Both have rejected work, and elected to live on benefits as a lifestyle choice.  They are parasites on society and a dead-weight on the economy.

I applaud the efforts here at home of Iain Duncan Smith to limit welfare benefits for the able-bodied to those who are genuinely looking for work, and to ensure that idleness is no longer available as a lifestyle choice.  If I were a parliamentarian in the Knesset, rather than the European parliament, I should be seeking to bring in similar measures to ensure that a life on welfare, for whatever reason, ceased to be available.  Religion is no excuse.

But it gets worse.  According to reports, some of these Haredim are harassing and persecuting other pious and observant Jews, simply because they fail to live up to the extremist standards embraced by the ultra-orthodox.  This applies, for example, to women whose dress is insufficiently “modest” for ultra-orthodox tastes.

Of course we believe in freedom of religion, and if you want to wear religious dress, that’s fine with me (leaving aside the question of veils in public).  But it’s not fine to seek to impose those same standards, by violence and intimidation, on others who interpret the rules differently.  The parallels with Muslim extremists and the Taliban are all too clear.

Israel’s international legitimacy depends on its status as a free, liberal and democratic country.  The rise of an ultra-orthodox Jewish Taliban, seeking to enforce extreme religious observance through harassment, violence and intimidation, undermines that legitimacy, just as the non-working ethos of the Haredim tends to undermine the Israeli economy.

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9 Responses to The Haredim: Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel

  1. maureen gannon says:

    You have obviously never visited Stamford Hill then? I was with a Jewish friend when we stopped for petrol, hot summers day she was in a summer dress and was called a harlot by a Heredim male because her arms were not covered, that was about 10 years ago so sounds par for the course to me.
    The BBC manipulates the news as opposed to reporting it.

    • I agree with you — although in this case your anecdote appears to support the BBC’s interpretation.

      • maureen gannon says:

        I should have made myself clearer, When I said manipulating news rather than reporting it , I meant funny how they have only decided to report on it now that the the Haredim are established in Isreal and never a murmer about here in England, must because they are stirring up emotions on behalf of the Palestinians.
        More conflict good excuse for more biased news.

  2. ian says:

    Your first link refers to a small number of messianic Jews being persecuted by some ultra-orthodox Israelis living near them. Your second link points to an Indian website, but today’s online edition of Haaretz (not known for ultra-orthodox bias) reveals that the Knesset is considering paying a new religious studies allowance, costing taxpayers just NIS 120-135 million pa. Yes, the haredim are poor thanks to their study hours and consequent ineligibility for welfare. But the vilification of them as a workshy Taliban sounds like a Labour Party strategy to gain Asian votes.

    • Not at all. My position as a supporter of Israel is clear and well-known. But as I have said, not an uncritical supporter. My main concern is that the Haredim lifestyle and behaviour is likely to damage Israel’s international reputation.

      • maureen gannon says:

        Are you as concerned that sharia law exists in your own country?
        All this talk about religious behaviour by certain sects whether Jewish / Muslim or any other minority is in my opinion divisive, it stirs up fear which leads to conflict,Britain must be one of the most multiracial countries in the world , but in the main we do not live in continuous conflict the majority live side by side getting on with their lives, there will always be the nutjob’s who burn flags, or lead bitter and twisted lives, that is given more coverage by the media than it warrants,
        What can the BBC gain by so much coverage of the Haredim in Isreal highlighting the fact they are poor and on benefits, I agree with Ian looks like political move via the BBC on behalf of the Liebour party.

  3. Cliff Williams says:

    I was surprised at many things in your commentary:
    First, that it appeared on Yom Kippur,
    Second, that you draw a parallel between lazy yobs with packets of crisps being the same as someone who reads religious texts – perhaps you are right but it seems an odd comparison; and
    Third you seem to say that the evil is that they don’t work. The actual evil (to me) appears to be that the state is giving them a handout. Freedom would allow them to sit in their congregation and study all day but the ignorance is that the state supports the behavior. All government should be out of the individual support business and back to the support of the nation allowing charity and local counsels to support the individual.

  4. maureen gannon says:

    Spoke to a friend about them being on benefits she informed me that in the main they have monies sent to them from ultra orthodox jews in U.S.A

    Saw TV showed it on the news reminded me of the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland .

  5. igorkarenin says:

    Dear Mister Helmer,
    It is very interesting to read your english and christian perspective of the Haredim not working. However, Israel is a different nation and a different culture with its own institutions. Studying the Torah is a fundamental element of Jewish life and the jewish social organization of the man studying and teaching and the woman working is centuries old. That route is chosen by a part of the Jewish population. If they are to be compared to anything at all, then they should be compared to monks in the christian monasteries or abbeys, not to our unemployed who refuse to work. Have you ever heard a Jew criticizing monks because they don’t found a family? They could to that since founding a family is a core value of Judaism. But no, those critics are not heard, because we are different nations – that’s one thing that the Haredim don’t fail to understand.
    Therefore, it seems to me a particularly bad idea to apply the western value of “work” to the Israelian society.
    The creation of a modern State of Israel posed many challenges to the Jewish people, including adapting the centuries old social structures into the modern State’s institutions.

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