TEL AVIV—The argument was over candles.
Students at the yeshiva religious seminary in a suburb of this cosmopolitan Israeli city bickered over whether it was permissible for observant Jews to light more candles than are needed during Shabbat.
From sundown on Friday to sundown Saturday, many Jewish families do not work, spend money, drive vehicles or use electric devices. Even flicking a light switch is considered inappropriate, making candles a necessity in most homes.
In a debate that stretched over days, some students said a collection of candles looked nice, while others contended too many were tantamount to a decadent luxury, not in keeping with Jewish law.
“It’s still not decided, we’re still talking about it,” said yeshiva student Yechezkel Horowitz.
Horowitz, 38, and his classmates are members of the black-clad ultra-Orthodox community, a group whose visibility and influence is surging in Israel.
The country’s 1 million ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, account for about 19 per cent of the country’s Jewish population of 5.4 million.
Many Haredim, a Hebrew word meaning those who tremble before God, marry in their teens. Academics say they typically have eight children, compared with two for secular couples.
In 1960, 15 per cent of Israeli primary students attended schools in the Arab or Haredim systems, rather than non-religious state-run schools. Now it’s about 50 per cent, and is on pace to reach 78 per cent by 2040, according to the Taub Centre, an Israeli think-tank.
By 2050, 25 per cent of Israel’s population will be Haredim, the International Monetary Fund estimates.
As Israel contemplates the prospect of a war against Iran or a renewed conflict in Gaza, the country faces an equally troubling conflict from within. Tensions are growing between secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, who believe life should be based on the Torah and the ancient texts of the Talmud.
“Haredim reject the modern world and any participation in it,” said Kenneth Green, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s department for the study of religion.
For Haredim, Green said, a vision of Israel’s future means living under Halacha, a Jewish version of Sharia law that could mean no restaurants or coffee shops where men and women mingle openly, no art galleries and professional sports teams, and a society where streets close on Shabbat — even for emergency vehicles.
“This is a society that has a commitment to maintaining pure Judaism and keeping life as it was during the late 19th century,” said Green. “Their vision of what Israel should look like would be something like an Eastern European ghetto a century ago.”
Thanks to an agreement signed by then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1948 when Israel became a state, the ultra-Orthodox are not required to serve in the military so long as they are seminary students. The exemption has become a source of bitterness, with some Israelis believing they are unfairly shouldering the burden of defending the country and financially supporting those studying the Torah.
Yeshiva students receive government stipends of $200 a month.
Under former prime minister Menachem Begin, Israel introduced child support in 1980 that rewards big families, which are typically Haredim. A couple receives $43 a month for their first child, two children nets $111 and then as much as $73 for each additional child. The payout for a family with eight kids is $549 per month, plus any yeshiva stipend.
It is compensation some say is justified — in the Bible.
Fresh from debating the use of candles on Shabbat, Yechezkel Horowitz carved into a steak at a kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv. His wife Chani explained how critics of the ultra-Orthodox fail to consider biblical history, namely the tradition of partnership started by two sons of Jacob, Zebulun and Issachar.
Zebulun was a merchant; Issachar a Torah scholar.
“Zebulun often said that he was lucky to have Issachar to teach his children and keep them off the street, while Issachar was lucky he had his brother to help him put food on his table while he did his studies,” Chani said. “That’s the relationship we should be trying to have in Israel right now.”
Yet a growing number of Israelis say their country is facing a demographic crisis and, Bible stories notwithstanding, cannot afford to keep offering the privileges, military exemptions and cash given to the Haredim.
A September survey by the firm Hiddush found that 71 per cent of Israelis polled believe secular-Haredim tension is the most troublesome conflict Israel faces, up from 64 per cent a year earlier.
Simply put, can Israel continue to pay a growing segment of society to spend years studying candles?
The unemployment rate amongst Haredim men has risen threefold over the past 30 years and now stands at 65 per cent, according to the Bank of Israel. Today, Israel pays $18 billion a year in child support and welfare payments, although there are no concrete statistics for how much of that goes to Haredim. (The country’s military budget, by comparison, is $14.5 billion.)
The cost of funding yeshivas is similarly steep. The Ministry of Social Affairs commits $16.5 million, or 80 per cent of its budget for public institutions, to ultra-Orthodox institutions, the Hebrew newspaper Maariv reported in October. Facilities that care for the elderly, handicapped, battered wives and abused children shared the other 20 per cent.
Economists have estimated that Haredim benefits cost Israel $750 million a year, and suggest that if they all entered the workforce, it could mean a $3-billion boost to the economy.
“The Haredim threaten to affect the country’s economy, but also our society, culture, you name it,” said Anita Shapira, an Israeli historian and professor at Tel Aviv University. “There is a tension that won’t go away.”
In the early 2000s, in the middle-class Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Kiryat Shalom, ultra-Orthodox children began attending summer camps that used the public pool. Within a few years, the pool was closed to women two days a week and roads were closed on Shabbat.
In Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighbourhood, tractors arrived early one morning in August 2008 and began digging up a vacant lot that had been used by residents to exercise and play sports, walk their dogs and park cars.
The residents were told ultra-Orthodox Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack had agreed to allow the ultra-Orthodox community to build a kindergarten on the lot, even though Kiryat Yovel didn’t yet have a Haredim presence.
Locals blocked the entrance but workers managed to erect a portable building and then a fence.
Instead of petering out, tensions in Kiryat Yovel threatened to boil over.
In September, posters featuring pictures of women including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus with the caption “The glorification of women” were put up on Shabbat in Kiryat Yovel and other ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. The timing was no accident. The Haredim couldn’t remove the posters right away because that would have constituted work.
The list of battles pitting the ultra-Orthodox against secular Israelis grows by the week.
This summer, Israeli bus lines stopped accepting all advertising because ads featuring women were being defaced. Haredim, who were behind the vandalism, don’t believe women’s images should be published.
When a photo of U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisers in the war room was distributed after the death of Osama bin Laden, ultra-Orthodox newspapers used Photoshop to erase U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Last fall, university professor Channi Maayan, a secular Israeli, won an award for her research into hereditary diseases. The 66-year-old said she was told she wouldn’t be allowed to sit with her husband at an awards ceremony at the Ministry of Health. A male colleague would have to accept her award onstage.
The restrictions were ordered because Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s deputy health minister, who is ultra-Orthodox, would attend the ceremony.
Maayan said anecdotes like hers are now common. Two years ago, she was called to the hospital during Yom Kippur to treat a family injured in a car accident. To get there, she had to drive through an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
“They started stoning my car and jumping on it,” she said. “The irony is I was going to help a Haredim family. It’s the 21st century and Israel is going back to the dark ages.”
Political power is part of the dispute.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Israel’s two main political parties, right-wing Likud and left-wing Labor, typically won the majority of the parliament’s 120 seats.
But over the past two decades, smaller parties have emerged, stealing support from traditional heavyweights and forcing parties that once could form a majority government to cobble together coalitions. Ruling governments have had to make concessions to influential members of their coalition.
Lee Cahaner, a geography professor at Oranim College in Kiryat Tivon, said that has turned ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism into kingmakers. “They hold the edge between two camps, the left-centre and the right. The ruling party, Likud, can’t imagine a new policy that antagonizes Shas.”
That’s why Cahaner believes the government won’t follow through on threats to include Haredim in the military draft. It is also why the government has been loath to consider removing settlements in the West Bank. About 70,000, or 25 per cent of the settler population, are Haredim, according to Israeli NGO Peace Now.
While Israeli men face three years of mandatory military service when they turn 18, the United Torah Judaism Party insists the ultra-Orthodox instead be allowed to remain in yeshivas. If Israel includes Haredim in the draft, it might spark riots “similar to those in Syria and Egypt,” said a party official.
One senior Israeli officer said in an interview that the military isn’t anxious to draft Haredim. That’s because they lack mainstream education, demand food that is even stricter than typical kosher fare, insist on praying three times a day and refuse to work alongside the women, who comprise more than 25 per cent of military personnel.
Mea Shearim is the largest ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
There are no cafes or restaurants in this enclave of stone buildings that was established in the 1860s. Two soup kitchens do a brisk business most weekdays.
A new community swimming pool offers different hours for men and women.
Tattered Hebrew posters urge local men to show up for rallies protesting how fewer Israelis are observing Shabbat. Others condemn the government for disturbing old Jewish graves while building new roads.
A few billboards aimed at foreigners read, “Please do not pass through our neighbourhood in immodest clothes,” and “Groups that pass through this neighbourhood severely offend the residents. Please stop this.”
On the public buses that run through Mea Shearim, men in black fedoras and long black coats sit in the front. Women cluster in the back.
Lured by the smell of fresh pastries, Moshe Rosenberg ducked into a bakery one morning during a break from his studies at a yeshiva in Mea Shearim and explained his typical day.
Most students study from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. with a lunch break. Rosenberg, 22, said his class had spent recent days discussing knas, financial penalties that can be imposed on someone who has committed a crime.
“Some laws are complex,” Rosenberg said. “If you steal a sheep, you repay four times the cost, but if you steal a cow, you have to repay five times. It’s interesting. It’s harder to steal a sheep. You have to pick it up and run away. I guess the Torah recognizes that and gives a bit of mercy.”
As Rosenberg returned to class, Rabbi Tzvi Fisch and his wife rushed through the streets to attend a circumcision. As his hosts hovered impatiently nearby, Fisch explained why Haredim refuse military service.
“In the Bible, we have the story of the city of Jericho,” Fisch said. “God ordered some Jews to pray and other soldiers to walk around the walls of the city seven times. They did this and the walls just fell down. That praying was crucial. Today, the seculars don’t understand that we who are praying. . . are the top of the system, just like in those days in the Bible.”
The rift between Israeli Haredim and their secular cousins has its roots in an effort to preserve Judaism after World War II.
Ben-Gurion needed the political clout of the rabbis. In exchange for their support, he agreed to give roughly 400 full-time yeshiva students a financial stipend and exemption from military service. Rabbis argued the move was needed to help restore the ranks of religious students murdered during the Holocaust.
“Ben-Gurion thought it was a nice thing to do; you were only talking about a few hundred people,” said Janet Aviad, an education lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
There was a widespread belief that the Haredim, who reminded many new Israelis of their European grandparents, would disappear within a generation.
Over the years, the number of draft-exempt Israelis jumped. In 1999, 30,414 Israelis avoided the draft; today, at least 54,000 yeshiva students are granted exemptions. Instead of boot camp, they receive a collective $7.4 million a month in government support payments.
The issue has become harder to ignore as Haredim have both reached a critical mass and become more politically savvy.
In February, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned a rule — called the Tal Law — that shielded ultra-Orthodox from military service. In 2011, 1,300 Haredim youth enlisted out of a pool of 8,500, a rate of 15 per cent. The comparable rate for secular Jews was 90 per cent.
The Israel Defense Forces has promised to draft Haredim in 2013 — a proposal first made in the 1980s by the Labor Party. But ultra-Orthodox members of the ruling coalition have urged rabbis across the country to stop Haredim from reporting to recruitment centres.
Even before the draft became a public dispute, there were growing ultra-Orthodox-secular clashes.
During the 1980s, newsstands in the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnai Brak outside Tel Aviv were bombed for selling secular newspapers. In 1982, a group of El Al airline employees, angered by the Israeli government’s plans to bow to Haredim pressure and ground the airline on the Sabbath and on holidays, briefly barred ultra-Orthodox travellers from Ben-Gurion airport.
A decade later, Haredim unsuccessfully lobbied to have the photos of hollow-eyed Holocaust survivors removed from the walls of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem, arguing it was sinful to look at naked bodies.
At least 20,000 secular Israelis have left Jerusalem over the past seven years, moving abroad or to liberal Tel Aviv, according to local media reports. While seculars represented roughly 40 per cent of Jerusalem’s population a decade ago, the city of 800,000 is now split evenly into thirds between the secular community, Arab Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox.
Some religious authorities said Israelis are used to being misunderstood by skeptics who suggest the country will struggle to survive in its current form.
“In the 1940s, we were seen as a bunch of weak, skinny farmers with no weapons, no country,” said Charles Moore, 59, who moved to Jerusalem six years ago from New York to study in a yeshiva. “People asked how we could survive. But we had faith and it worked out. It’ll work out now, too.”
Some Haredim have agreed to serve in Israel’s military. More than 1,000 have served in Shahar, a special army program set up for married ultra-Orthodox men. If the numbers grow, it may ease tensions with secular Jews.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said more Haredim than ever are joining the workforce, which should lessen the dependence on social assistance.
Barkat said the city is spending $3 million a year on training programs for Haredim and tax incentives for companies who employ them.
“We had 4,000 Haredim show up for 300 jobs at a recent job fair.”
Several hundred wedding guests stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a street corner in Bnai Brak. There are at least four marriages taking place in wedding halls a few steps away.
Inside one of the halls, a Klezmer band plays as men and women dance, the sexes divided by a two-metre column that runs the length of the hall.
As a few beggars move from table to table, shaking a few shekels in their outstretched hands in a plea for loose change, Ephraim Kribus explained why he is the face of the fast-changing Haredim.
Kribus, 37, has seven children — one boy and six girls.
Three years ago, he gave up life in a yeshiva to attend college. Kribus said it had become impossible to feed a family of nine on the $450 in social assistance he received each month.
“This is what it is to be poor: You go to the store for some milk and if it costs one shekel too much, you come back home and wait for it to be cheaper the next day,” he said. “I couldn’t live like that anymore.”
Today, Kribus runs his own company repairing and installing commercial air conditioners.
Of the nine men sitting at a table with Kribus, three others said they had jobs. One was a lawyer, another an architect, and a third, Haim Dreyfuss, was a high-school principal.
Shrugging off a friend’s offer of a swig of whisky, Dreyfuss, 30, pulled out an iPhone, technology banned by many ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
“Look,” he exclaimed, “it has GPS to show us the closest sushi restaurant.”
Working out of an office in Mea Shearim, Nachman Aroll, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, said he sees his community changing.
The 35-year-old father of eight operates his own travel company and business is booming.
“Traditionally, Haredim travel for weddings to places like New York, London, Switzerland, Austria and Australia,” he said. “It’s not easy for us to travel.”
Aroll said one of the biggest stumbling blocks to international travel is that Haredim women require a special mikveh bath for the ritual of purifying themselves with rain water after each menstrual cycle. .
“We’re talking about a bath that can hold 1,000 litres,” Aroll said. “It’s not the easiest thing to find.”
Yet Haredim families are increasingly walking in to Aroll’s office to ask about vacations.
Aroll said secular Jews have misconceptions about their religious neighbours.
“They think we get everything for free from the government but that’s just not true,” Aroll said, adding that he pays $100 per child each month for private school.
“The seculars get free education, sports, theatre programs, public parks, everything for them is free,” he said. “Look around this neighbourhood. You won’t see any public parks here. The government doesn’t spend money here.”
Aroll said secular Israelis need to adjust.
“We aren’t going anywhere. I don’t think anyone would disagree that Israel is becoming more religious each year. In 20 years we will be a different country, closer to God, and it will be for the better.”
By the numbers
7.7: Average number of children per Haredim woman in 2001
56: Percentage of Haredim living below the poverty line in 2010
37: Percentage of Haredim men who worked in 2009; comparable figure for all Israeli men was 67%
24.9: Haredi men who served in the military or who did national service in 2009; comparable figure for the general Jewish population was 70%
71.9: Percentage of Haredim who had a computer at home in 2008
Sources: Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment, National Economic Council