Political Promise

Israel’s Other Headache

In Uncategorized on January 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Perhaps the most complex, emotive, and seemingly unsolvable international issue of our time is the Israel-Palestine situation. It is something that will probably continue to preoccupy our media, international institutions, and heads of state for some time, and more than likely those in the time of our children and grandchildren. With the year anniversary of the Gaza bombings in operation ‘Cast Lead’ and the publication of the Goldstone report, the area remains a territory under siege with little sign of progress. We continue to hear of the mounting tensions between Israel and the Arab world, and how the area constantly hampers international agreements on issues like human rights and trade. Despite all the coverage and political energy dedicated to this topic, something we tend to hear little about are the tensions within Israel itself, which play an important part in the progress made in the area.

Some 5 million of Israel’s 7.5 million population are Jewish, and within this is a fraction of ultra orthodox Jews known as the Haredi. Haredi means ‘those who fear God’, and this conservative section of Judaism has become the fastest growing of Israeli society, with around a quarter of a million living in Jerusalem alone. The Haredi dedicate their lives to studying the Torah and other Jewish religious texts, committing themselves solely to spiritual study. Their traditional black and white clothing acts as a symbol of their rejection of modernity, and despite previously keeping themselves to themselves and wanting to live without interference, the social and political influence of the Haredi is growing and can no longer be ignored.

Coming from large families of around eight or nine children, each generation is growing faster than the last, a growth which causes social tensions as the Haredi way of life spills out of their close knit communities and into secular Israeli life. A major bone of contention lies in the fact that many Haredi do not work, but solely dedicate their lives to religious study, a lifestyle which is subsidised by the state. They are also exempt from the two year military service all Israelis are expected to serve. In certain areas they are beginning to impose their beliefs, advocating segregation of the sexes on buses and a conservative attitude towards women. As Israel itself is built on secular principles, many Israelis resent the orthodox principles of the Haredi, and object to the fact that their tax payer money is continuing to fund the growing number who do not work.

As well as contributing to social tensions, their growth has a great impact on Israel’s foreign policy, especially that towards disputed land. Their sheer number adds to the need for more housing and infrastructure. Large Haredi communities can be found in the West Bank, and more are being given incentives, such as low interest loans, to be able to move there. Some have suggested that the Haredi are being used as a political tool to advocate the continued building of settlements on this land, and as a means to change the demographics in heavily Arab populated areas of Israel. Their political influence is also a force to be reckoned with. In the last election the Haredi coalition was the deciding factor in which party formed government. Their religious beliefs and their connection to the holy land are reflected in their avocation of certain policies- they feared that a Left wing government would make too many concessions to the Palestinians, and gave their support to the Right. All of this is bad news for a deteriorating peace process.

By no means is this fraction of Israeli society the only domestic influence the Israeli Government must appease, but their numbers will have a great social and economic influence on Israel’s future, and the peace process. With so many headaches already; the EU’s food labelling, accusations of war crimes, continued cries to halt settlement buildings, and the lack of relations with the Arabic world, the Haredi are adding to what is fast becoming a migraine for the Israeli government.

Kim Hobson

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