Despite Protests, Mainstream Haredi Leaders Talk About Sabbath Work Deal

Day of Unrest: Israeli police create a barrier in front of 2,000 ultra-Orthodox protesters who demonstrated outside one of Intel’s plants in Jerusalem on November 21. They were protesting the company’s decision to operate on Saturdays.
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Day of Unrest: Israeli police create a barrier in front of 2,000 ultra-Orthodox protesters who demonstrated outside one of Intel’s plants in Jerusalem on November 21. They were protesting the company’s decision to operate on Saturdays.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 25, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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On the surface, it looks as though Jerusalem is caught in a battle between old and new, as high-tech companies open factories with coveted jobs, while leaders of the large ultra-Orthodox population are adamant that the plants remain idle on Saturdays in observance of the Sabbath.

This was the story widely told in the media following Haredi protests against Intel, the computer chip giant, on Saturday, November 14, that drew 500 people, and then again on the following Saturday, November 21, that drew 2,000 for operating its plant on the Sabbath.

Escorted Out: An Israeli policeman gestures as he escorts a demonstrator during a protest at Intel’s chip-making plant.
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Escorted Out: An Israeli policeman gestures as he escorts a demonstrator during a protest at Intel’s chip-making plant.

But behind the scenes, even as protesters planned their gatherings, Haredi leaders were busy meeting with Intel management to look for a solution to the dispute, showing a level of enthusiasm for a quick resolution unseen in previous clashes between the ultra-Orthodox and various private companies and public interests over Sabbath transgressions. The two sides are said to be mulling a solution in which Intel would agree to employ only non-Jews on the Sabbath. In return, rabbis are reportedly prepared to give their tacit agreement to the plant working on the Sabbath — an unprecedented acceptance of Saturday manufacturing.

“We are continuing with talks and we hope to reach an agreement which will be good for both sides,” Koby Bahar, Intel’s Israel spokesman told the Forward on November 25, but declined to be more specific. He said Intel employed 6,500 people at facilities throughout Israel, including several hundred at two plants in Jerusalem. The plant that has been the focus of the dispute is the smaller of the two, and employs about 150 people, he said.

While media reports present Haredim as becoming consistently more aggressive in their demands about labor on Saturday in Jerusalem, many of those who have fought them in the past beg to differ. Deputy Mayor Yosef Alalu, a Meretz politician, has remarked that compared with the infamous Haredi battle against the opening of a mixed gender swimming pool in the late 1950s, the Intel protests are “child’s play.”

The religious leaders who are keen to hammer out a compromise are members of the Rabbinical Committee for the Sanctity of the Sabbath, which represents leaders of various mainstream Haredi factions, including the Hasidic rebbes, the so-called Lithuanian or non-Hasidic yeshiva heads, and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox. With these mainstream leaders involved in negotiations, the demonstrators on the second Saturday were mainly drawn from the ranks of the militant Eida Haredit.

While mainstream leaders are tight-lipped about reasons for their conciliatory approach, observers of the Haredi community have become intrigued. Some suggest that the economic burdens on the community and the city mean that while ideological protests initially are appealing, they are considered too risky. Demonizing “capitalist Western economic actors could have been a strategy that was relevant 10 to 15 years ago. Now, the situation has become far more complicated,” said Amir Paz-Fuchs, a researcher at Ono Academic College who just completed a major research project on employment in the Haredi community.

In 1985, Intel became one of the first major foreign high-tech companies to locate in Jerusalem, opening its first non-American wafer-fabrication plant, which has become something of a symbol of economic hope. However, it is said to be mulling leaving unless the dispute ends, according to local media reports. Roni Ellenblum, a Hebrew University geographer who specializes in religious groups, said “too many people are dependent on it” for Haredim, who make up a fifth of the city’s population and a third of its Jewish population, to risk driving it away.

Bar-Ilan University geography professor Yosef Shilhav, an expert on power dynamics among Haredim, said that community leaders fear the kind of backlash that would occur if Intel left. He told the Forward, “The ultra-Orthodox community is aware of how [it] will look in the eyes of other communities, including the nonreligious, and will not like to be blamed for economic depression in Jerusalem.”

But Intel is not just another big employer; it is an emblem of a whole new employment culture across Israel that the rabbis seem to be keen to safeguard — that of female Haredim finding employment in high-tech. In doing so, they bring much-needed cash to their families, and in many cases they enable their husbands to study religious texts full time.

In the past decade, several multinational, high-tech companies have actively begun to recruit Haredi women. They mostly provide female-only offices to protect them from supposedly immodest encounters with men, as well as special rooms where the women employees can express breast milk. The whole setup, which accounts for an estimated 8,000 employees, has the encouragement of rabbis, who provide kashrut supervision for canteens.

Employers, Intel included, appreciate the industriousness of Haredi employees: They consider wasting time during working hours a sin, and employees appreciate the chance of employment specially geared to their needs. “High-tech is good for Haredi people, and Haredi people are good for high-tech,” said Hershel Klein, a senior officer at Mafteach, (Hebrew for “key,”) a Haredi-run nongovernmental organization based in Bnei Brak that helps members of the community enter the job market.

Klein, however, added that in his view, “the bottom line is what is written in the Torah, [and that] is what counts. Jews have done a lot to keep Shabbat.” As for whether high-tech companies should be shown flexibility, he said that is the decision of rabbis alone, and declined to speculate about what is guiding them.

But outside the community, experts are pointing to a link between the employment stakes and the rabbis’ approach. Paz-Fuchs said that rabbis see female high-tech employment as “economic development without negative impact on beliefs and lifestyle, and they don’t want this to fall apart.” He said that if relations with Intel are soured or the firm leaves Jerusalem, “other companies could follow, and this could take a toll not just on the fragile status of many Haredi families.”

Shilhav believes that Intel has actually become a battleground for a “struggle over the way of life of the Haredi community.”

It is not a coincidence, he said, that the Eida Haredit are keeping friction about the dispute with Intel high as mainstream leaders are trying to quell it. The Eida Haredit are known to disapprove of modernizing trends in the Haredi community, and this is epitomized by women entering the high-tech work force. In Shilhav’s analysis, they are consciously trying to undermine this, just as the mainstream leaders are trying to safeguard it. “The mainstream is moving slowly and surely into the labor force and more in the economic mainstream of Israel and improving its standing, and the extremists are looking at this and feeling very negative about it,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






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