Israel's real Charedi revolution

Is Israel really in danger of being overrun by Charedi religious extremists?

It certainly feels like it. In recent weeks, Charedi activists have repeatedly excluded women from the public sphere, consigning them to the back of buses, forbidding them from walking on certain pavements, and even verbally harassing and spitting at young girls on their way to school for their allegedly immodest clothing.

Such is the climate of intimidation that, in the capital, secular ad agencies have stopped putting women on posters in order to avoid strictly Orthodox wrath.

But the hysteria - for such it is - must stop. Israel is not moving from democracy to theocracy and, despite the best attempts of their extremists, the Charedim are not going to force the rest of the population to submit to a misogynist future. In reality, the Charedi population is assimilating to the secular state, not the other way around.

Most of the incidents that have shaken Israel involve a very limited number of people. The gender-segregated pavements are confined to a few streets in Bet Shemesh, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem - which, despite its national significance, is increasingly regarded as Charedi or "foreign" territory by other Israelis. The schoolgirls are being harassed by a handful of men. This is not in any way to minimise the severity of these phenomena; they are despicable and must be stamped out. However, they pose no immediate threat to the country as a whole.

Meanwhile, mainstream Charedim are heading in a different direction. Even within the past five years, they have opened up significantly to the rest of Israeli society, with taboos such as IDF service and higher education softening considerably. Last year, out of 7,500 eligible Charedi youth, 2,360 enlisted or performed national service (up 284 per cent since 2008), while more than 2,000 men and women study in Charedi colleges, and thousands more complete other diplomas.

Israel is not moving from democracy to theocracy

There are also more Charedim in the workplace than ever before, and wide exposure to the internet, with Charedi news sites thriving despite repeated rabbinic attempts to shut them down.

The irony is that it is this very positive process of integration that seems to be sparking the exclusion of women, as it terrifies the more conservative elements of the community. Faced with modernisation, they push towards isolation. They succeed partially because of the compliance of general society, which assumes that the most extreme views are the most authentic and representative; and also because the current Charedi leaders choose, actively or by staying silent, to reinforce this impression.

But, ultimately, the extremists cannot hope to reverse the slow but steady revolution. The most senior Charedi leaders are very old men (the top Ashkenazi rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who this month condemned serving in the IDF and studying secular topics, is 101). Soon, a generation that was born in the state of Israel and is more modern in its outlook will take their place.

Most importantly, integration is inevitable for economic reasons. Too many Charedim no longer want to live a life of poverty.

After the anger they have sparked, the extremists also face a secular backlash. It seems likely that journalist Yair Lapid, who has just announced his entry into politics, will campaign on a secularist manifesto, following the lead of his father Tommy, who won 15 seats for Shinui in 2003 on the same populist platform.

Should the secularists become pivotal to a coalition, they will hopefully resist the impulse to punish the Charedim and instead find constructive ways to encourage the masses who wish to study and work. That is what will really change Israel for the better, and is the real Charedi story today.

    Last updated: 11:37am, January 26 2012