Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Civic Responsibility > No Longer a Minority: Behind the Veil of Israel’s Public Unrest

No Longer a Minority: Behind the Veil of Israel’s Public Unrest

The true issue underlying the protests sweeping through Israel is demography rather than democracy; a compromise solution concerning judicial reform will a band-aid alone. The solution depends on Charedim espousing an attitude of broad responsibility and the rest of Israel inviting them to participate as equal partners.

Adar 5783 / March 2023

Yair Lapid, the head of Israel’s opposition, declared recently that the ongoing (and escalating) protests sweeping through Israel are no longer about judicial reform and certainly not about one compromise or another. The issue is far deeper: “Half of the country,” he said, “is getting up and asking: Why is it that we’re the only ones paying taxes and sending our children to the army for the sake of others who disparage us from atop the Knesset podium?” With these short words, Lapid lifted the veil of Israel’s mass protests and demonstrations. The core issue is not the reforms per se; it’s the Charedim.

The popular chant on the streets of Israel today is de-mo-crat-ya. Democracy. But you can’t help but think that the actual chant should be de-mo-graph-ya. Demography. The panic surrounding the judicial reforms stems from the demographic shift taking place in Israel, whose most dramatic aspect (by far) is the exponential growth of the proportion of Charedi society in Israel, from three percent at inception to close to fourteen today. And we’re far from done. At the first-grade level, a full twenty-five percent of children are enrolled in the Charedi education system.

Though far from insignificant, the reform is only a trigger for the true fear: Israel’s new demographic balance. Many protestors have thus moved from demanding the repeal of the proposed reforms to insisting on establishing a constitution that will deal with the long-term demographic threat. This is not a matter to be taken lightly.

The genuine fear is Israel’s new demographic, which is why many protestors have moved from demanding the repeal of the proposed reforms to insisting on establishing a constitution that will deal with the long-term demographic threat

For decades, Charedi society and Israel’s general Jewish public have described two parallel lines, first established in the days of Ben-Gurion and the Chazon Ish. One, the Israeli line, marks the establishment, building, and continued flourishing of the State of Israel in all areas worthy of a modern state. The second, the Charedi line, outlines the restoration of a religious world that was decimated in the Shoah and vanished from Arab lands only to be reestablished and even upgraded as an Israeli version, including a multitude of institutions: yeshivas, synagogues, Chasidic courts, communities, Torah centers, and various and varied religious services.

For years, the “parallel lines” arrangement functioned efficiently. Yet, “quantity makes quality,” and suddenly, somewhere from the 80s or 90s of the last century, Israeli society was faced with profound challenges that could no longer be ignored: equality in sharing the civic burden (i.e., the Israeli draft), Israel’s economic future, core curriculum studies in Charedi schools, gender segregation in a host of settings, matters of Shabbos in the public square, and far more. These, along with growing Charedi political power, began to sound alarm bells for many Israelis and raised the question: How do we deal with the parallel line getting even thicker, to the point of infringing on the first line?

The traditional answer to this question has been Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some, such as Prof. Menachem Mautner, believe that the balance of the Supreme Court is value-driven – a liberal correction of the illiberal forces, Charedi and others, in the Israeli Knesset. In contrast, some, such as Prof. Amichai Cohen, claim that the balance is not value-driven but rather institutional or procedural, correcting a “market failure” of the excess power Israel’s parliamentary system gives the Charedi public. Either way, the court knew how to curb the inevitable tide of Charedi power in a broad variety of areas – the recruitment of yeshiva students, the power of Israel’s Batei Din, the abolition of gender segregation in various contexts, the sale of pork, ensuring representatives of Reform Judaism on local councils, the opening of businesses on Shabbos, and so on.

Today, a new government has arisen, threatening to remove the barrier, including the override clause that Charedi representatives, unsurprisingly, are unwilling to give up on. For many, frustrated for years over the undemocratic intervention of the court, this is precisely why they gave their vote to the Charedi parties, and they expect their representatives to deliver. For others, however, it’s a scary prospect. As in the Generation of the Dispersion, “now nothing that they set out to do will be prevented from them” (Bereishis 11:6).

“The country is going in a bad direction; I am scared to death of the Charedim,” said (Nobel Prize winner) Prof. Dan Shechtman recently. On the one hand, the fear relates to laws that would entrench Charedi isolationism at the expense of State funding, such as the proposed Basic Law: Torah study that would give study in yeshiva equal status to serving in the IDF. “People with education and earning capacity and entrepreneurship do not want to pay the ‘Israel premium’ if it means this is what the country will look like,” said Roy Idan (citing the protestors). “I’m tired of fighting for the settlements and funding the Charedim,” echoed Yair Golan. On the other, the fear relates to potential changes in Israel’s status quo on issues of religion and state, raised recently over the Chametz Law (concerning bringing chametz to hospitals on Pesach) and the proposed bill criminalizing immodest dress at the Kotel. Addressing his “Charedi brothers,” even a right-winger like Assaf Voll stated, “We are right-wing but not in your pocket, and you won’t have a Halachic state here. Forget about it.”

That’s the big story. Any compromise we reach regarding the judicial reform – please God, we will reach it soon, though the path remains filled with obstacles – will not solve the real problem, the “black elephant” in the room. Well, “Whence will come my help?”


The Double Predicament of Parallel Lines

Both groups, the Chardim and those who aren’t, find themselves in a catch-22 situation.

Keeping Charedi society as a victimized minority employing parliamentary power to win benefits and budgets is a convenient arrangement for much of the general Jewish public (for the sake of brevity, I will allow this gross generalization). The main thing is that the Charedim should not interfere with the lives of others and change the character of the country.

However, with the continued growth of the Charedi public, this state of affairs becomes anything from unreasonable to entirely untenable. Israel’s economy requires Charedi integration to perpetuate the financial growth essential for its survival; the delicate fabric of Israel’s social blanket, which seems to be coming apart at the seams at the present moment, needs its deep involvement; and even on the state level, absent Charedi participation the Jewish state stands to lose its legitimacy as the political representative of the Jewish people.

Israel needs the Charedim inside. However, their entry is also problematic. While necessary, it stands to exact a painful and unwanted price tag of Charedi influence on the nature of state institutions and the character of the public space, including a host of issues related to religion and state. It is unsurprising that, in some ways, the proliferation of Charedi society has been accompanied by processes of Israeli secularization, including public Shabbos observance, Jewish content in state education, and the character of the IDF, as though to declare: “We know you’re coming so we’re preceding remedy to illness.” The fear of religious encroachment even affects the attitude toward intra-Charedi arrangements out of concern that these will eventually spread to the general public.

The invitation extended to the Charedim is thus qualified: “Participate, please, but only on our terms.” It goes without saying that such an invitation will hardly evoke a positive response. On the one hand, we need the Charedim as partners. On the other, we cannot have them as partners.

The Charedim, too, have their own quandary to handle. Official Charedi rhetoric, as sounded by the relevant party newspapers, accepts the proposition of remaining a weak minority demanding “what we deserve” just as all citizens. According to party lines articulated by the Charedi press, the Charedim have no aspiration or interest in running the country. On the contrary, we are fearful and highly reluctant to do so. In a recent editorial published in Yated Neeman, it was stated that in the absence of Halachic tradition, we cannot make decisions on fateful matters of state, and therefore – I heard these very words from former minister Yaakov Litzman – “We will never be a majority.” That is, the fundamental gap between the parallel lines must be preserved forever.

Yet, deep in our hearts, we all know this is impossible. The sheer size of the Charedi public does not allow its confinement to the four cubits of a Halachic space, and the demands made by the general public to participate in the different areas of state function resonates with ever-increasing intensity, both morally and existentially. Moreover, internal pressures compel us to look beyond our already-cracked defensive walls. Given newly acquired power and influence, many Charedim are demanding involvement in fundamental issues of the State of Israel. Responsibility gives us meaning, and what is true for individuals is no less true for an entire public: the Charedi person seeks responsibility, a Torah that makes a tangible impact.

But how can this be realized? As noted by the Yated Neeman editorial, we lack a tradition concerning in running a modern state, the more so one in which a large majority is not mitzvah observant. When Charedi representatives were asked (by a Kan 11 journalist) about their ideal vision for Israel’s Supreme Court, they were naturally unable to respond. But beyond this, we have no idea how to merge a Western-modern-liberal state of the type that we’re quite happy to live in with a mitzvah-observant Judaism loyal to Jewish tradition – not to mention a Charedi Judaism that has embraced the principle of isolation from modernity and its pitfalls.

On the one hand, we need to be involved; on the other, we cannot be partners.

We thus have a double predicament. Both sides recognize the clear and even existential need for the participation of Charedi society in the State of Israel. Still, both are unwilling to pay the price – the liberal price for the general public and a Jewish-Charedi price for the Charedim. The accepted strategy for such predicaments is to “manage the conflict,” and this has also been true for this case in point: virtually no external intervention and only minor progress concerning participation in employment, core curriculum studies, military service of the Charedi public, and (more or less) maintenance of the status quo on religion and state arrangements and character of the public space.

Until the new government came along with its legal reforms, and all havoc broke loose.


Establishing a Thick Line

The judicial reforms, which weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to act as Israel’s political guardian, upset the balance of power. They provide the Charedim with a reinforced capacity to fortify their minority status by means of a host of laws and regulations – full funding for schools without core curriculum studies, statutory deferment from military service, expansion of free education from age zero regardless of work status, the “Basic Law of Torah study” (equating Torah study to military service), and so on – and cancel the Supreme Court’s status as the responsible adult commissioned to prevent any change in Israel’s national and social character. On the one hand, the Charedim will not integrate; on the other hand, they will also wield power over the state. This is why people are protesting.

To quote again from Assaf Voll, the general public (even on the Right of the political map) “is interested in being free in our country, free from the yokes of both the Supreme Court and the Rabbinic Court,” so “you should not play with buttons of legislation, basic or general, because I’m already close to switching sides and it’s highly possible that I’m not alone.” Haaretz, always ready to go the extra mile, published an opinion piece suggesting Charedi parties should be outlawed. Though undoubtedly desirable, a compromise of one kind or another on judicial reform will serve as a band-aid alone, a cosmetic fix for a profound social issue about to explode.

The real remedy to the double predicament of Israeli society is the abolition of the “parallel lines” policy. Our country urgently needs a single “thick line,” one that knows how to unite the various groups under a common denominator of a Jewish state – a fundamental point that deserves expansion in a separate piece – while respecting the religious, value, and cultural differences of the different parties. It sounds complex, I know. But if we turn our eyes on the people, reasonable Israelis on the street, it is lo bashamayim – not in the heavens.

In the Charedi arena, we will immediately recognize many thousands who understand the need for a mental switch that chooses an approach of responsibility, of charting a Torah path for statecraft, honest dialogue and readiness to reach compromises

In the Charedi arena, we will immediately recognize many thousands who understand the need for a mental switch that espouses deep responsibility for Israel, charting a Torah path for statecraft, honest dialogue, and readiness to reach compromises. On the other side of the fence, alongside fear and frustration, I meet a wealth of camaraderie and a willingness to engage in discussion and compromise. What we lack the most, it seems, is brave leadership. On all sides.

On the Charedi side, courageous leadership is the type that recognizes the responsibility that comes with power and acts accordingly. We need to exercise caution in maintaining boundaries of isolationism essential for Charedi life, but not at the burgeoning price of not taking responsibility for the greater Jewish public and the State of Israel of which we are an integral part.

In the Knesset debate on the Basic Laws of 1992, when asked why, as a Charedi person, he is not an enthusiastic supporter of laws that protect minorities, MK Avraham Verdiger (MK on behalf of Agudath Israel) replied with a statement that reflects more the Charedi person of 2023 than that of 1992: “We do not see ourselves as a minority.” Courageous leadership will take the statement as a call to action: we cannot milk our own system. As part of the majority, we share the same comprehensive responsibility as the rest of Israel, and it’s up to us to figure out how to discharge it.

On the secular side, a brave leadership will recognize the need to invite the Charedi to participate in the state in the full sense, without reservations. It is simply impossible to demand Charedi integration on the one hand while canceling, on the other, a Charedi program for cadets in the civil service because of gender separation and a 2023 Purim party in Tel Aviv for the same reason, not to mention the discriminatory conduct toward the Charedi Netzah Yehuda Battalion.

It is impossible to live in the contradiction between inviting Charedim to participate in the different arenas of Israel but only on the condition that they cease to be Charedi. If the Charedim are not a minority, then they deserve a voice just like everyone else

It is impossible to live in the contradiction between inviting Charedim to participate in the different arenas of Israel but only on the condition that they cease to be Charedi. If the Charedim are not a minority, then they deserve a voice just like everyone else, and Israeli society must maintain dialogue with them and reach agreements – agreements that should not be static but shift and change according to trends in Israel’s demographic.

The way of the world is that representatives, both Charedi and secular, are afraid of zealots, those who shout the loudest and impose extreme positions on all sides – the religious and liberal extremes. The result is that nobody has an interest in promoting the initiatives most vital for the country. If the Charedi cadet program is attacked by both sides, the Charedim for encouraging integration and the liberals for operating a gender-segregated framework, why would anyone promote it? The solution must start from the people, leaders from all sides of civic society who understand the need for a “thick line” and are ready to invest thought and action – and sometimes pay prices – for its establishment.

Given the current moment, we need them urgently.


We continue to go through the days between Purim and Pesach, between one redemption and another. The redemption of Purim took place via the human leadership of Mordechai and Esther, figures who operated in the darkness of exile, bereft of prophecy and without Hashem’s revelation. With their wisdom, courage, and faith in Divine providence even in times of concealment, they were able to save the Jewish People. This is how we chart the course back to the deliverance from Egypt, moving from hidden to revealed miracles, from the Megillah of exile to the story of our ultimate redemption. We hope and pray that we, too, by the grace of Hashem combined with the power of human agency, should move from the dim reality of today to great light, from times of strife to complete deliverance.


This article is an updated version of a previous Hebrew piece published in Makor Rishon (17.3.23); Picture: OHAYON AVI, לע”מ.

13 thoughts on “No Longer a Minority: Behind the Veil of Israel’s Public Unrest

  • The true issue is indeed demographic. It is when a particular demographic which accounts for an estimated 2% of taxes paid and a whopping 40% of social welfare benefits claimed, and which contributes net zero to the defense of the nation, and which is growing in numbers exponentially thanks in large measure to the welfare benefits it snarfs up, then uses its collective undemocratic clout to Trojan Horse a faux judicial reform that will engrave in stone its right to be dependent on those who actually defend the state, pay the taxes, and build the economy. Not to mention assuring that convicted criminals and other shady characters will occupy the highest offices in the land, characters who, neither they nor their offspring have done a single day’s service for the greater society.

    • well said!!

  • This is a terrific piece, Rabbi, thank you. Also consistent with mine here: I look forward to meeting with you in due course to discuss. Thank you very much.

  • I write this as an American, not an Israeli. However, I am a passionate observer of the Jewish state, a country that seems to move from one challenge to another without end. Such is the life of the Jewish people and the life of the Jewish state..

    I am encouraged by the tone of this article, which imagines some kind of successful meeting between two quarters of Israeli society. I do not consider myself anti-Charedi unlike many friends. I understand how an integrated Charedi sector would need to be accommodated as to their religious practices for example at public events, even if they do not accord with liberal values (e.g., gender segregation ), although it’s a bit of a sticky wicket, e.g., gender segregation in public transportation.

    However, I am a bit troubled by the absence of a discussion of the two major issues of Charedi life that one hears about all the time: An absence of this group in the IDF (or other accepted forms of national service), and a 53% unemployment rate among Charedim. Whenever I think about this issue I find myself wondering how Israeli Charedim really justify this level of unemployment and concomitant poverty (and a failure to contribute to the Israeli economy) as compared to their compatriots in, say, Brooklyn, where (though I do not know for certain) there is a higher employment rate.

    If the Charedi population in Israel is indeed going to enter into the public sphere as partners, then addressing these two large concerns are necessary conditions for whatever other conversations would ensue in pursuing that partnership. And without a higher employment rate and commitment to defending the state, I for one cannot see how any partnership can be real.

  • Here’s an interesting thought experiment which I think best sums up the liberal exasperation with the Charedi community at the moment:

    – What would happen to Israel if each of the 1.8 million Jewish Israelis who voted for the opposition left the country, along with their children, and moved to Berlin or Los Angeles? What would the IDF look like? What would the hi-tech industry look like? What would the healtcare system look like? What would the government’s finances look like? What would the effects be if a randomly selected 1/3 of opposition voters left the country? As much as they’d hate to admit it, the Charedim would be devestated.

    – OK: now imagine, what would happen to Israel if the 700,000 voters who cast a ballot for Yahadut HaTorah and Shas left the country along with their children, and relocated to Brooklyn or Antwerp? From the perspective of the 1.8 million Jewish opposition voters, the effects would actually be quite positive. The Treasury would lose relatively little tax revenues, and would need to support many fewer people on Bituach Leumi, the healthcare system, yeshivot, and kollelim. Traffic would lessen. Hospital wait times would drop. The politics would improve. The dati leumi community could retake the Rabbanut, and make it a socially unifiying force once again.

    This is the assymetry that’s driving liberal Israelis into the streets. Yes, they object to “democracy” to the extent that democracy means equal voting rights but inequal responsibilities, and no protection for political minorities. They’re being told by Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni that they’re the minority, they lost the election, and they need to accept that the system of government will change to deny them the last stronghold of their political and legal authority. Yet they’re also being told to keep paying taxes, keep serving in the miluim, and while the “winners” and the “majority” are exempt from those responsibilities. Rav Pfeffer has worthwhile advice about how the Charedim can take on some of the burden that will earn them the right to have an equal vote and an equal say in the eyes of their liberal neighbors.

    • Very well said. I think the majority of Israelis are now fully aware of what the demographics have in store for them if they fail to act when they can. The need for action by the center / left is abundantly clear. The rule of law in Yehudah and Shomron and the curtailment of subsidies to non-participants in Israel’s army and economy is the consequence of this absurd interlude.

    • The day all chareidim leave on flights to Antwerpen and NY you won’t have a jewish state anymore.
      Remove the cornerstone and it all falls.

    • You are ignoring the side effects of the Charedim leaving the country.
      First, the volunteer organizations in Israel virtually hold up the country. It is not about clowns entertaining sick children. Basic health care is done by volunteers, that are staffed, organized and run by Charedim. This is not an accident. Secular Israel could not do this themselves, the culture does not lend itself to that.
      Second, legitimacy. If a large part of the most noticeably Jewish component of the country were not, by design, permitted to take part in it, the Israeli claim to Jewish legacy is sorely denied. Even a tiny group of Neturei Karta are a thorn in their side. Imagine hundreds of thousands of Charedim, all living in Chu”l, and representing flourishing Jewish non-Zionism. Sure, the Reform movement cannot be considered real supporters of Zionism, but they are not a flourishing community.
      Third, most Israelis wish and need some religion in their country. A hot kettle keeps the bath warm. A lukewarm kettle makes for a cold bath. The secular cannot rely on the little religion they do have to continue without the hot kettle of the Charedim.
      Fourth, this fight was fought already. It is unethical to change the terms of the agreement when you have the power to do so, just because you can. When Ben-Gurion wished for Charedi involvement in the nascent State, he needed it desperately. A price was promised, and that must be honored. Essentially, the State is based as much on Ben-Gurion’s politicking with the UN as it is on the Charedim’s willingness to join.

      And the numbers that you quote can be manipulated any which way possible. Do they take into account Charedi tourism? Charedim who bury their dead in Eretz Yisroel, paying huge sums in the process and guaranteeing future tourism when they come visit their Kevarim? Charedi Yeshiva students from abroad that spend huge sums in Israel? Charedi volunteers that remove burdens from the taxpayer? (This is a separate point to the one made above) Charedi fundraising from abroad that brings in huge sums to the Israeli economy?
      It may, but it equally may not. Statistics can say whatever it is you want them to say.

  • הדברים על חוסר מנהיגות משני הצדדים נכונים אך לא ממצאים את מהות הענין. עוד לפני ההנהגה חסר דיון ממצא על .אופציות הקיום המשותף ל2 החברות שנוצרו בתוך ישראל: החילונית והחרדית. הכנבסת שעד היום קבעה את האינטרקציה החוקתית יחד עם הממשלות ובית משפט היגיע לנקודה בה החרדים יכולים למעשה להחליט בשביל כול המדינה. אופציה שהחילונים יקבלו זאת בשקט בוטלה. הם התמרדו. והשאלה מה הלה פתוחה.. חרדים חייבים לעצמם בחירה. מה הם רואים בעתיד, מדינה חרדית שחייה על פי דין תורה. או מדינה סכולרית בה החרדים חיים בגטו כמגזר נבחר לזכויות בלבד. בהתאם לבחירתם יהיה גם משוב מהחילונים. מאידך גם חילונים עומדים בפני בחירה אם להכיל את המגזר החרדי במסגרת המדינה ובאיזו צורה. מה שלא יבחרו שני הצדדים רק מערכת החוק תאפשר להם לישם .זאת. לכן מערכת בית משפט תיהיה חשובה אף יותר מהיום אך לא כעת הזמן הנכון לסדר אותה.

  • This is an excellent discussion of some of the issues, disregarding a fair number that are critical.

    1) Hafoch bah ve’hafoch bah, ki kuloh bah. Many teshuvot have been written applying halakha to social and political issues that are fundamental to a Jewish state. Hareidi poskim have rarely (never based on my limited exposure) seriously engaged in such matters. Many things have not had a tradition; but our halakhic heritage has, despite limited precedent, found a way forward.

    2) We cannot continue the fiction that lifetime learning by more than 1 to 3% of the adult (male) population can be supported. It never was in pre-WWII Jewish history (or the very early years of the State) and cannot now and hope to ever solve the problem. The laws of economics are not suggestions that can be disregarded at will. Unless Hareidi leaders (rabbinic and political) promote meaningful, gradual change, the opposition is left with only one alternative – promote radical change in the benefits that enable such a system to exist.

    3) Israel must remain a democratic state, where individual rights are sacrosanct. If Haredim cannot acknowledge that, there is no way forward.

    4) Tofastah merubah, lo tofastah. As the Israeli public becomes aware of what coalition with the radical RZ and Hareidi parties has wrought, they are likely to act in an overly destructive way in the upcoming elections. HaShem Yerachem.

  • Application geineale

  • This is a superb article on the demographic fears that are driving the protests and how the Charedi world can and should act proactively as a major interest group in secular Israeli society without losing its identity, The status quo worked as a means of preserving and rebuilding the Charedi world after the Holocaust. Interacting with and being a part of the overall secular society can be accomplished without sacrificing being a Charedi as shown by many of the resolutely Charedi individuals in the US who are accomplished Talmidei Chachamim and Mchabrei Seforim but who are equally accomplished in their careers and/or professions . This should be seen as a lchatchilah and not as a bdieved view .

  • This is a very demerit system of government.

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