In my many meetings with secular Israelis, I have recently encountered numerous manifestations of fear of ultra-Orthodox Jews. More precisely, their fear for the future because of the very existence of the Haredim. The fear is expressed across a broad spectrum: from sharp criticism and show of contempt, to latent hatred and pure, unadulterated panic that is anything but hidden. The fact that the Haredi public gave the two political parties that represent it 16 seats in the most recent Knesset election, in September, appalls anyone who has been taught to see this public as a “black” bloc that endangers the liberal way of life and threatens secular existence as such in this country. If now, then 20 years down the line.
Fear and suspicion of those who are different are generally associated with a primitive mindset and ignorance. But when it comes to the secular population’s “Haredi phobia,” the fear seems to mount in parallel with the socioeconomic status and educational background of those who are frightened. Indeed, it is the public living on the social periphery in Israel that is not afraid of the Haredim – perhaps because those two communities interact more, or because they both have an affinity for religion, or possibly because liberalism is sometimes a cover for patronizing behavor and prejudice.
The fear of “a halakha state” (one based on Jewish religious law) has brought about a push for a “state of secular halakha” – that is, one in which secular values and the secular way of life are forced upon the public. Fear of religious coercion, it seems, generates a desire for secular coercion. Fear of imposed religion has brought about a powerful desire to secularize the Haredi public in any way possible.
In a conversation I had recently with a group of mostly secular educators who are identified with the left, my interlocutors spoke openly about concerns over Haredi population growth and stated as an absolute – and absolutely mistaken – certainty that if the Haredim were ever to become the majority in Israel, they would no longer be able to live here.
As a member of the ultra-Orthodox community myself, I asked the educators what Haredim would need to do to for the secular public to stop being afraid of them and seeing them as a threat. “Our only concern is for you to share the burden,” said the most senior figure among them, who has an important position in the realm of education, and clarified, “For the Haredim to do army service and for their educational curriculum to be such that it will enable them to integrate into the labor market.”
“And then everything will be all right?”
“Obviously. Why should we have a problem with the Haredim?”