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The Haredi Challenge

The State of Israel is faced with so many existential challenges, from within and without, that it is foolhardy to privilege one above another, especially from afar. But the continued, passionate defiance of secular law and government authority by ultra-Orthodox Jews is quickly posing a serious threat to the very nature of Israeli democracy.

In just the last few weeks, the Haredi community has erupted in anger against Israel’s Supreme Court over a recent decision that denied government stipends to married yeshiva students and the court’s effort to enforce an earlier ruling against a Haredi school that it found guilty of discrimination against Sephardic girls. In both cases, the court was trying to uphold basic democratic principles, that public resources should be distributed as equally as possible, be they subsidies or seats in a classroom.

In the school case, unfortunately, the court went too far, by immediately jailing the mostly Ashkenazic parents in the Immanuel settlement who refused to continue sending their girls to the Beit Yaakov school after the court ordered the disbanding of a separate “Hasidic track” that effectively excluded most of the Sephardic students. Even the Sephardic father who originally brought the case to the high court — and who is reportedly receiving death threats because of it — told Haaretz that the jail sentence is “the spark that will set the keg on fire.”

And it has. In only a day, the Haredim amassed 100,000 protesters in Jerusalem on June 17, effectively shutting down large parts of the city and displaying a street strength that dwarfs anything the weary secular public can muster right now.

But while the court’s tactics can be criticized, its underlying message must be aggressively defended by the majority of Israelis who are not Haredi, by a government that is supposed to uphold fundamental principles of fairness and equality, and by all of us who support the essential democratic character of the state.

The privileged position of the ultra-Orthodox dates back to the time of David Ben-Gurion, but in the decades since, thanks to high fertility rates and immigration, the community — though only about 10% of the Israeli population — has accumulated growing political clout and social muscle. As is evidenced in the Immanuel case, there are plenty of divisions within the Haredi world, between and among Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

The common thread, increasingly, however, is a mounting resistance to the rule of law, whether expressed through court decisions or government policy, and a determined willingness to separate from the norms of Israeli society. Most Haredi men and women live in distinct enclaves, do not work, do not serve in the armed forces, and rely on the state for financial support and security.

This is building understandable resentment among the rest of the Israeli public, whether religious or secular, who must shoulder an increasing burden in the workplace and the military. Just as worrying is the Haredi demonization of secular authority. Some of the protesters in Jerusalem on June 17 carried placards that read, “Pharaoh, Antiochus, Czar Nicholas, High Court of Justice.”

Segregation and separation can have no place in a pluralistic democracy. This is a challenge Israel can’t afford to lose.

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