The Charedim are not as uniform as we think

Anti high-tech demos in Israel are more about politics than religion

By Nathan Jeffay, December 17, 2009

Last Saturday, for the fifth week in a row, there was a Charedi protest outside Intel in Jerusalem — a show of fury against the computer-chip giant for keeping the plant running on Shabbat.

But Israelis’ interest in the protests seems to have declined. Demonstrators braving the cold to make their point have dwindled in number from 1,000-plus to around 200. Yet, if the issue is so fundamental --- multinational computer corporation under pressure to observe biblical law --- why has the campaign flagged?

This is a question that highlights an important social issue: the perception of the Charedim in Israel by the non-Charedi majority, a perception that is largely paralleled throughout the diaspora.

When hundreds and hundreds of black-hatted folk were descending upon Intel, some of them getting arrested, it was a immensely colourful story that reinforced the lofty exasperation of non-Charedi Israelis towards Charedim at large.

Here were the forces of traditionalism, Charedim, trying to hold back the forces of progress, represented by Intel. As “mainstream” Israel becomes more forward-looking, day by day this apparently monolithic entity, “the Charedim”, looks ever more backward and reactionary. But, as the initial, rowdy protests have become transformed into a smaller, calmer phenomenon, such a summary of Israeli society is demonstrably simplistic.

Even at their height, the Intel protests were small fry

While it makes a good story to view the protests as showing that Charedim are increasingly aggressive in their demands over the religious character of Jerusalem, it is untrue.

Even at their height, the Intel protests were small fry compared the battles of the past, including one row over a mixed-sex swimming pool in the 1950s when, according to popular mythology, Jerusalem had only a handful of — much more moderate — Charedi residents.

More importantly, the Intel protests reveal a situation that is the opposite of the conventional wisdom. They are organised by the ultra hard-line Eida Charedit, which is constantly at odds with the mainstream Charedi leadership, who are trying to force into a generally harder stance. The dynamics of the Charedi community are such that mainstream leaders cannot endorse Sabbath transgression, so cannot openly undermine the Eida, They can, however, sidestep a particular battle, which is what they have done here, hence the falling numbers.

And why did the Eida choose to wage war on Intel? Because its wrath is really directed against the mainstream leadership. Outside of Eida circles, many Charedim are becoming more outward-looking when it comes to vocational education and entering the job market. For Eida, high-tech firms are the symbol of this trend, as they employ thousands of Charedi women. Properly understood, the anti-Intel protests represent a symbolic resistance by a small group of Charedim to modernising tendencies in the more mainstream community.

It is true that Charedim in Israel continue to press for a more hard-line interpretation of religious law, but this is in part a reaction against the sweeping assumptions that continue to prevail within the majority of the population towards Charedim and our widespread failure to understand the nuances of Charedi life.

Nathan Jeffay is an Israel-based freelance writer

Last updated: 11:08am, December 17 2009