Friday, November 11, 2011

The Jews: Ultra-orthodox at odds with secular

TEL AVIV: At an ice cream parlour in the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, a sign warns men and women not to lick cones.
By Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times

Still, for some of the community's more fanatical residents, the sign was not enough. The store was recently vandalised for fear that public licking - even of ice cream - promotes promiscuity.

Although it is only a short stroll from Jerusalem's main pedestrian shopping mall, there is no mistaking where the border of this ultra-orthodox, or Haredi, community lies.

Large signs on the streets leading into the neighbourhood 'beg' women not to enter if they are wearing tight-fitting dresses or 'immodest' clothes.

And anyone who attempts to drive through the neighbourhood on the Sabbath - when driving is banned under Jewish law - risks a rock thrown through their windscreen.

For most Israelis, who are largely secular, entering such neighbourhoods is like entering another world.

But it is a world that is rapidly expanding. The ultra-orthodox community has the country's highest birth rate, prompting fears of a 'demographic threat' to Israel.

There are more than 700,000 Haredim in Israel - about 9 per cent of the population - but the proportions are rapidly changing.

A University of Haifa report last November found that Haredim account for about a quarter of the country's births. By 2040, a majority of the country's high school students will be Haredim.

Haredi families have an average of seven children - treble the national average - but are not required by the government to serve in the army.

Most do not even work. The community has the country's lowest workforce participation rate: About 30 to 40 per cent of Haredi men and half of women hold jobs.

Encouraging Haredi to integrate - and work

Instead, most of the men devote their lives to studying religious scriptures at seminaries, largely funded by the government and philanthropy.

Both Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer have warned that the situation is 'unsustainable'.

'We cannot have an ever-increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work,' Mr Fischer said last year.

Almost 60 per cent of Haredi families live below the poverty line.

The government says the cost of the community's low level of employment is about US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) a year.

However, the government and several non-governmental organisations have begun working with the community to encourage more Haredi to go to college, get jobs and enlist in the army.

These have included a special army programme which allows Haredi men to study scriptures and serve separately from women soldiers. An expert on the Haredim, Professor Amiram Gonen, a professor of geography at Hebrew University, said the community has shown signs of change in the past five years.

The main catalysts, he says, have been the global financial crisis - which dried up philanthropic funding for seminaries - and the impact of the surrounding consumer society.

In its outward appearance, a Haredi neighbourhood can seem like a throwback to an 18th-century Jewish European shtetl, or village. Most men have beards, long, curling sidelocks, and wear black suits and hats. Women wear long dresses and, if married, a headscarf or wig.

But the community, as Prof Gonen says, is not as isolated as it may appear.

For a start, many Haredim do work. Even in Mea Shearim, virtually every man seems to be clutching a prayer book or speaking on a cellphone - or both.

While many households are reluctant to expose themselves to the Internet, a growing number - about 40 per cent - have computers.

The government has budgeted US$140 million over the next six years to make education more accessible for Haredim.

'It is not a barricaded fortress,' Prof Gonen said. 'Ideas come in, new norms and tastes develop.

'The images in the media are usually of the hardcore. But the fanatics are a minority. For the most part, they want a car and furniture and a new telephone and a new computer. They do consume - they are not cut off.'