The Ultra-Orthodox Community's New Trend: From Isolationism to Involvement

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From the outside looking in at the ultra-Orthodox community, there seem to be two contradictory trends: extremism and increasing isolationism on the one hand, and moderation and increasing integration on the other. As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, I think it is safe to say that the latter appears to be getting the upper hand.

Let’s start with the barriers.

From dispersion to sovereignty

No doubt, the trend toward extremism is evident with regard to religious observance and religious law, and also in the push to seclude oneself in a designated space that is set aside for solely the ultra-Orthodox community and identity. The trend finds expression in the development of counter-trends that seek to restore and preserve ultra-Orthodoxy’s conservative and radical “countercultural” identity, and to a certain extent to revive it still further and imbue it with fresh content from within the ultra-Orthodox position. This counterculture distances itself from Zionism and modernity.

Although the trend is somewhat on the “fringes,” it has given rise to activist struggles by the ultra-Orthodox against the state’s institutions, its judicial and higher education systems, and the army. We also cannot ignore the political forces in ultra-Orthodox society whose goal is to preserve and protect the conservative ultra-Orthodox identity from interference by the government or the secular public.

In these ways, the barriers that separate ultra-Orthodox society from secular society remain high and thick in the second decade of the 21st century. A sense of alienation and a number of ideological, economic, spatial and religious disparities continue to stand in the way of ultra-Orthodox integration into modern Israeli life.

However, this is not the only trend.

There is yet another trend that seems to be simultaneously affecting ultra-Orthodox identity, and it is causing the well built walls of the ultra-Orthodox to crack. This is a trend toward the weakening of the ultra-Orthodox “society of learners” and the strengthening of the ultra-Orthodox individual. While the ultra-Orthodox community might prefer to be seen by those on the outside as oppositional, united, homogeneous, closed and conservative, this is no longer the case.

Among the most pronounced changes that have taken place over the past two decades is closer interaction between the ultra-Orthodox and secular publics through the integration of ultra-Orthodox workers into the greater job market.

The employment rate among ultra-Orthodox men grew from 34% to 50% between 2003 and 2015, and from 51% to 73% percent among ultra-Orthodox women. Likewise, there was a decline in the percentage of women employed in teaching (from 64% to 46% between 2001 and 2015). Alongside this, entry into higher education rose from 1,150 ultra-Orthodox students in 2003 to 10,100 in 2015. The proportion of ultra-Orthodox homes with online access went up from 24% in 2008 to 44% in 2014, and the proportion of ultra-Orthodox people who said they never went on vacation decreased from 66% to 37% between 2003 and 2014.

The increase in income levels and the development of individual and independent identities and opinions not dictated by a leader or community also show, at least to some extent, the changes that have already taken place in ultra-Orthodox society. While they have been accepted at differing levels of intensity by various sectors of the community, these changes are also likely to continue to reshape society.

In demographic and numerical terms, ultra-Orthodox society has gone from a small, intimate community to a large population. This is evident not only in the internal distancing of various ultra-Orthodox groups, but also in the growing challenge of keeping watch over identity in a society that is expanding and becoming more diverse.

In 2017, we have to ask: Who is ultra-Orthodox? What are the boundaries of ultra-Orthodox society? What are the boundaries of ultra-Orthodox identity within the Israeli sphere? What are the boundaries of ultra-Orthodox identity within the online sphere?

The new ultra-Orthodoxy is different. It treads the boundary between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Israeli spheres because of its constant – and ever stronger – contact with the Israeli public domain.

The identity of this new group of ultra-Orthodox people adheres to a system of ultra-Orthodox social norms that the ultra-Orthodox individual does not dare to violate and is not interested in changing. Yet people who are part of this new group say their inner spiritual world is no longer exclusively “classic ultra-Orthodox.”

These individuals no longer regard being part of a “society of learners” as the sole option. They are people who have graduated from the ultra-Orthodox colleges and universities; former soldiers who served in ultra-Orthodox army units; those who work in the secular sphere; Internet users; visitors to vacation and leisure spots; readers of the new ultra-Orthodox press; and members of the more “open” groups among the ultra-Orthodox communities.

Do people with these identities and outlooks merge well with the general outlook of the State of Israel and the Israeli public domain? The answer is yes. And by doing so, these people will continue to give new shape to what is commonly known as the ultra-Orthodox community and its identity within the Israeli social sphere.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Post.