Planning the Global Jewish Forum on Haredim

by Robbie Gringras

How can you find the deep conversation when there are so many burning facts flying around?

  • Fact: the Haredi population in Israel is doubling every decade.
  • Fact: Over 20% of school children in Israel are at Haredi institutions, which teach neither English nor Math, let alone Citizenship.
  • Fact: Over 60,000 young Haredi men are granted automatic exemption from army service every year, under 50% of all Haredi adults work, and those that do so work fewer hours than anyone else in the country.
  • Fact: Over 90 “Mehadrin” bus lines throughout the country require women to sit at the back of the bus.

When Makom was faced with the challenge of creating and running a 5-hour symposium on “Haredim and the Jewish Collective” for the Global Jewish Forum of the Jewish Agency, we wanted to avoid throwing oil on the already blazing fire.

We also wanted to bring all the participants into a deeper more honest and informed understanding of the situation. For example, all the above facts are most certainly the presenting edge of the issue, but they risk offering a snap-shot as a trend, a two-dimensional picture as the deep reality. How might we help everyone reach, as Yonatan Ariel puts it, “a higher level of confusion”?

Add to that a mostly non-Haredi audience carrying a little bit of natural prejudice, a smidgen of hurt pride, and a genuine concern that Israel may not end up looking anything like a Western paradise, and we knew to expect a loaded atmosphere for the latest Global Jewish Forum.

We are not experts about Haredim, but we knew something about our approach to Israel education, and we chose to stick with the five principles we knew.

1. Elephants in the Room.

Israel is too important to the Jewish People, and Jewish adults are too intelligent and invested for us to avoid the burning and even painful issues. Careful honesty is more important than breezy avoidance.

2. Local perspectives.

Every community has its own assumptions, its own associations, and its own concerns that must be acknowledged and worked with. Some values are more culturally-specific and less universal than we are aware.

3. Multi-vocality.

We needed to bring many different voices into the room. Not a case of them and us, but a case of them and them and also them and us and us and us. We are a deep complicated People with many shades of opinions and stances, and that is what makes us fascinating.

4. A Jewish conversation.

When studying Israel with Jews, Israel’s issues, challenges, and achievements must be addressed through the lens of Jewish civilization. Hence we took care to frame the day’s forum in the 200-year perspective of the challenges that modernity presented to the Jewish world, and made sure the accompanying source pack referred not just to Israeli sociology but also to Jewish history.

5. Bettering not battering.

We do not advocate for prettifying or cover-ups. Critique is a crucial part of learning. But we do insist on an intention of repair rather than just moaning.

Elephants in the Room

The elephants in the room tend to be different from the subject everyone is talking about. Everyone has been talking about the violence in Bet Shemesh and the extreme responses to women sitting in “Mehadrin” buses. Yet scratching at the surface of these deeply troubling events revealed an easy truth: These headline-grabbing events are not particularly complex. What can one do with a violent person or someone who brazenly breaks the law? Arrest them!

The more complex question lies below: What if all violent Haredim (acknowledged by all to be a minority) were arrested? What if every single Haredi who spat at a child, set fire to a garbage can, screamed in a woman’s face, was removed from society? Would this solve the issue of the remaining 800,000 or so Haredim in Israeli society? Would this overnight fill the army to bursting with Haredi recruits? Would this miraculously give Haredi men qualifications and the desire to take a job? And these jobs – are they just waiting to be filled?

In short, the elephants in the room tend to be hidden by the headlines. Other questions must be brought forward and addressed: Do we want Haredi integration into Israeli society, or do we prefer them separate? What do we mean by “integration” – which side should make compromises to enable such integration? Do Haredim seek integration? Do we wish to achieve this aim through a radical or gradual process? These were the kind of issues we decided to try to tackle in the Global Jewish Forum.

Local Perspectives

The dominant Israeli perception of the Haredi “problem” is primarily economic. It is about “sharing the burden”. Something along the lines of: They can dress how they want, so long as they serve in the army, work for their keep, and educate their children for sustainability. Hence reassurance for an Israeli would be to hear that more and more Haredim are entering the workplace, are serving in the army, are teaching their children for the 21st Century.

Yet the dominant Diaspora perspective of the Haredi “problem” is altogether different. It is primarily about the exclusion of women: “Women within the Haredi community are practically enslaved in the home, and Haredi men will not be happy until every woman in Israel is covered up and out of sight.” For an American to be reassured, they would like to hear that the rights of 50% of the Jewish People are being protected and upheld.

This is why Israeli reassurances about “progress” are often met with such ambivalence in the Diaspora. “What does Haredi men working in hi-tech have to do with women’s place in society? It would seem that the way to integrate Haredi men into the army and workplace is to exclude women from it! In what way is this progress?” Likewise the Diasporan suggestion of trumpeting women’s rights would only cause the Haredim to close ranks and avoid integration – no solution at all for the Israeli.

These two opposing prisms through which we look at the same issue (or indeed the same prism through which we look from opposing sides) needed to be made explicit. They were addressed very clearly and in two different ways by the two women in the interviews video.

We should also point out that most Jews in the West might assume that the integration of Haredim into Israeli society is desirable, while many Israelis – Haredim and non-Haredim – do not share this basic assumption and even aspire to more separation.


We needed participants to hear from Haredim. But how? Most Haredim who are in any way representative of their communities will have been educated in the Israeli Haredi education system and so do not speak English. Simultaneous translation systems are technically possible, but are, in our experience, always more distancing than engaging.

How many Haredim should we bring in? We envisaged two or three Haredim defending themselves against the accusations of over a hundred liberal American Jews… not particularly constructive… A panel of speakers? But we would insist on having some women on the panel, and what if that were to rule out the participation of the Haredi men? Besides, panel discussions are so rarely enriching.

In the end we chose a different genre. We interviewed six different people, edited them down into about 5 minutes each, and added subtitles in English. Men, women, Haredim, non-Haredim, in favour of integration and against, advocating for radical and gradual change. The Forum would watch the 30 minute video, and then discuss what they had seen in their small groups.

Which led us to our next issue: who would be in the groups? Surely multi-vocality on this topic would require many different voices in the small group discussions as well as from the screen? Yet there are no Haredim in the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, or in positions of power in Jewish Federations. In order to have Haredim at the tables, we would need to go out of our way to invite them.

The Jewish Agency works with Haredim – through its Youth Futures project, and Partnership Together network. Thanks to a huge amount of effort on the part of these units, including the provision of transport, glatt kosher meals, and much liaison, we knew we would be able to ensure the participation of Haredim at each discussion table.

But, we were asked by one of their representatives, would there be an option for men and women to sit separately? Would there, for example, be a table set aside for women only?

We tried hard to imagine this. A conversation about Haredim and Israeli society without the men hearing the women or the women hearing the men? We couldn’t do it. We refused. But we could, we reasoned, accept the idea of men and women sitting at the same table, but with men sitting on one side of the table and women on the other side. Then all are part of the same conversation, no one is excluded, but the seating is still separate.

This idea lasted until we raised it with the facilitators of the table discussions. They quite rightly pointed out that were we to introduce this seating arrangement at the start of the day, to over 250 people deeply concerned about a “Haredi take-over”, the Forum would break down then and there. Only a long serious and reasoned conversation would lead everyone to accept this suggestion, and we didn’t have time for that.

The final arrangement was simply for each facilitator to discretely ensure that each Haredi table member be sandwiched by someone of the same gender. We survived. Haredim were active and crucial participants in the small-group discussions throughout the conference. Did the seating arrangements rule out the participation of some whose voices might have sounded different? Perhaps.

Bettering not Battering

One might say that there are two schools of thought on the Haredi issue: The Neri Horowitz approach, and the Dan Ben David approach. Both are serious researchers. Yet we began to realize they almost represent a Hillel-Shammai divide of old.

Dan Ben David sees doom ahead. He will point out, for example, that 45% of Israel’s children are educated in the Haredi and the Arab sector. This is a third-world education at best. Israel will not be able to maintain a first-world army when such a large proportion of its citizens have received a third-world education. In marrying together security, existential fears, and Haredim, Dr Ben David is absolutely right. But perhaps a little bleak, shall we say.

Contrast this with the Hillel of Neri Horowitz, adviser to Admors and to Ministers. He is a walking encyclopedia on Haredi issues, and celebrates the huge steps made by the government and the Haredi community towards integration. He prefers to advocate for a policy of “internal aliya” – an investment in the absorption of Haredim into Israeli society requiring similar educational, social, and economic strategies to those of welcoming a wave of immigration. He doesn’t deny the challenges, but chooses to trust a process rather than force a confrontation. He also is absolutely right, while possibly a little optimistic.

We invited Neri to address our conference. We chose a little bit too much light rather than a little bit too much darkness.

But more than this, some of the Haredim we chose to “showcase” in our film were people working towards peaceful and practical solutions. The jewel in the crown was Rabbi Yehuda Meshi Zahav. This is a man who has shifted from being the leader of an extreme (and often violent) Haredi sect, to being the founder director of ZAKA. ZAKA is an internationally acclaimed volunteer organization that focuses on “respecting the dead, and saving life.” It’s a Jewish Red Cross. They treat everyone, and welcome everyone: They even sent a team of Haredi volunteers around the country to teach resuscitation to Arab women.

The initial response to our choice of featuring ZAKA and its director, was to shrug: “That’s easy,” we were told, “but how representative is Meshi Zahav of the Haredi mind-set?” The assumption was that ZAKA is something of a freak of nature, an exception that proves the rule. To give prominence to such an organization would be just as misleading as to present Neturei Karta as evidence of most Jews’ anti-Zionism, or a mild-mannered Persian proving that Iran’s nuclear plans are peaceful.

But on the other hand, ZAKA is a picture of the possible, and it is a success story. Is the utopian vision of integrated tikkun olam that Meshi Zahav propounds more likely to succeed than the strategy of homogenous Haredi cities enacted by the Mayor of Betar Illit (who also features in our video)? No one really knows. But we knew that in the careful educational dance between clear-eyed critique and a call to action we needed to weight the scales away from despair and in the direction of hope.

As Yonatan Ariel, Executive Director of Makom, emphasized at the end of the Forum: We must give weight to the power of human agency. Nothing is fixed. After the Holocaust 80% of Yeshiva students had been wiped out by the Nazis and over 90% of all Rabbis murdered. Thanks to the huge efforts of the Haredi community and the Jewish State, the world of Yeshiva has been revived. If such an extraordinary recovery is possible not through miracles but through human agency, so too may we fix the unhealthy by-products of such a recovery through our own choices and actions.

Robbie Gringras is Artist-in-Residence at Makom.

The Global Jewish Forum: Haredim and the Jewish Collective was presented by Makom on February 27, 2012, during the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ winter meetings.

The full program can be seen here.
And here, is the translated video of a speech by journalist Yair Lapid to the Haredi track of Kiryat Ono college, prior to his becoming a political candidate.