Steeped in tradition, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews face reform drive

June 7, 2013

(An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a street poster in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood, inviting the public to a protest against government plans to draw more ultra-Orthodox men into the conscript army, June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner )

A small rock lies on the desk of Dov Lipman. It was hurled at the member of parliament by a fellow ultra-Orthodox Jew and is a constant reminder of the deep divisions within Israel that Lipman says must be overcome.

Lipman, who is a rabbi, was hit by the stone shortly after immigrating to Israel from the United States, eight years ago, when he stumbled into a riot over plans to dig up some ancient bones – something the protesters said was a desecration.

“We have returned to this land after 2,000 years and we have to get this right; and it is not right,” said Lipman, a member of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party that wants Israel’s large ultra-Orthodox communities pushed into mainstream society.

An integral part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, Yesh Atid is leading an unprecedented, multi-pronged charge, backed by legislation that seeks to draw more ultra-Orthodox men into the conscript army, trim their welfare benefits and reform their antiquated, religious schooling.

For many ‘Haredim’ – a Hebrew term meaning ‘those who tremble before God’ – the government is doing too much too quickly. Even some coalition partners have their doubts, fearing a backlash from the volatile fringe of a disparate movement born in the impoverished villages of 18th-century eastern Europe.

The Haredim make up 10 percent of Israel’s eight million population and they are expanding rapidly, with families of 10 children not uncommon. Few of them share Lipman’s world vision.

Often living in de-facto ghettos of their own making, the majority of Haredi men are allowed to shun the army and dedicate their life to religious study, living off donations, state benefits and the often meager wages of wives, many of whom work.

In a country where most 18-year-old Jewish men and women are conscripted, to maintain a standing and reserve army over 600,000 strong, such treatment is causing growing resentment – something Yesh Atid successfully tapped into at an election in January, helping it become the second largest party in Israel.

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