As the Margins Grow Wider, the Flames get Hotter

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Though this handful of demonstrators is not representative of ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, it reflects a growing trend among young ultra-Orthodox men who find an outlet in right-wing protests.

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The recent violent clashes in Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs, with extremist participants on both sides, have seen tensions in the capital raised to boiling point once again. But unlike similar cases in the past, participants in last Thursday’s demonstration at the Old City’s Damascus Gate also included a number of young men with an ultra-Orthodox appearance, who identify with the extremist right-wing ideology put forward by the Lehava organization. Though this handful of demonstrators is not representative of ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, it reflects a growing trend among young ultra-Orthodox men who have dropped out of ultra-Orthodox educational frameworks and are finding an outlet for their energies in stormy right-wing demonstrations. In the past, we were used to seeing violent demonstrations by extremist ultra-Orthodox groups protesting the compulsory draft to the IDF; now, we may also have to get used to seeing ultra-Orthodox young men playing a prominent role in far-right protests.

But who are these young men, and why are they participating in these demonstrations?

First, it is important to understand the scope of the phenomenon. According to data from the Knesset Research and Information Center, registered dropout rates from ultra-Orthodox educational institutions for boys, stood at 4.6% in 2018, compared with just 1.4% in the State education system. However, education professionals and experts believe that the scope of hidden or latent dropout—that is, not reported to the authorities-- and which includes students who do not attend school on a regular basis, is much larger, and is estimated at around 20%. As in many areas of life, the coronavirus crisis has had a significant impact on this issue as well. Over the last year, when educational institutions were closed for far more time than they were open—including, in most cases, ultra-Orthodox frameworks —dropout has increased, leading to growing numbers of youths moving towards the margins of ultra-Orthodox society. In most instances, this has led to a spike in the numbers of youth on the streets, drug and alcohol abuse, a sense of isolation, depression, and—in general, dysfunctional behaviors.

These marginal youth include many young people with learning disabilities, behavioral difficulties, and coming from challenging family circumstances, some of them—children of parents—who previously led a secular way of life, and who have only recently joined the Haredi fold (“ba’alei tshuva”). All of them have not found their place in the yeshiva world, and when they leave it, become a burden on their families and communities. These ultra-Orthodox youths pose a significant challenge, both to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical and educational leadership, and to state institutions, chief among them the Ministry of Education. And as they grow in number, we are seeing that the ultra-Orthodox education system is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to find a place for these thousands of youngsters. Without appropriate educational and social alternative frameworks that will welcome them, accept them, and respond to their needs, they are on the short path to life on the streets and to the welcoming arms of violent organizations such as Lehava that offer them a clear identity and sense of belonging. These trends, with large numbers of young people having nothing to occupy their time and being increasingly detached from educational frameworks, is likely to lead to aggressive outbreaks of violence, exactly as we have seen in recent days.

Along with identifying the source of the problem, we must also understand how it can be addressed. First, it is vital that internal ultra-Orthodox leadership clearly recognizes and acknowledges the issue. This leadership trumpets the ideal of full-time Torah study for boys, yet despite the scope of dropout from yeshivot, will not countenance any legitimate alternatives for those who are unable or unwilling to continue on this path, while still seeking to remain part of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The State must also act. It must begin to view the phenomenon of marginal ultra-Orthodox youth as a real challenge that threatens to explode at any moment, particularly in places where there is a high potential for friction with the Arab public and with law enforcement agencies. In addition, in order to address this phenomenon and enable marginal ultra-Orthodox youth to grow into young adults with the potential to integrate into the workforce and the IDF, and find their place in Israeli society, the State should establish an Ultra-Orthodox Youth Administration, as well as pedagogical guidance centers that can provide appropriate responses to the needs of these young people and the challenges they face. It should also strengthen the all too few ultra-Orthodox educational institutions set up to serve them, establish more institutions of this kind, as well as train ultra-Orthodox educators to identify learning disabilities and behavioral difficulties at an early stage.

Case-by-case responses and educational band-aids are not the answer to this chronic problem. Preventing further and more dangerous clashes between ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian youths will require persistent, systematic, combined and coordinated efforts by ultra-Orthodox leaders and the government, based on the understanding that this issue will not simply go away unless it is dealt with head-on.

Thea article was published in the Jerusalem Post.