If an alien landed on earth and analyzed popular culture in Western society – books, movies, TV shows – they would have to conclude that we are completely surrounded by vampires.
The same can be said for unicorns – you can find them everywhere – art, cartoons, literature.
If we are to believe the media in Israel, there is another creature that can be found everywhere you look: the moderate chareidi.
Problem is that the moderate chareidi is also a mythical creature.
Of course, there is a big difference between the moderate chareidi and vampires or unicorns: while no one has any proof of the existence of vampires or unicorns, the moderate chareidi definitely does exist. I have seen them and spoken to them. The myth here is that they are all around us.
In reality, looking for moderate chareidim is quite similar to searching for a four-leaf clover.
Like most Israelis, I was ready to accept the idea that the number of moderate chareidim is growing. After all, why would the press make this stuff up?
But two events earlier this year made it clear to me that this supposed change is nothing more than wishful thinking. The events I am referring to are:
1) The mass chareidi demonstration against service in Tzahal
2) The elections in Beit Shemesh
With all the talk about the increasing number of chareidim serving in the army, one would have expected that there would be many chareidim opposed to a demonstration against serving in Tzahal. Yet, hundreds of thousands of chareidim came to the demonstration in Jerusalem.
In the municipal elections in Beit Shemesh, everyone knew that the final results would be extremely close. Given that the incumbent mayor had significant support in the older parts of the city, challenger Eli Cohen knew that he would need to get the support of the moderate chareidim in Beit Shemesh in order to win. Despite many chugei bayit aimed at the supposed moderate chareidi population, the election results showed that there was almost no support for Eli Cohen among the chareidi population of the city.
Here are some sample voting station results from the chareidi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh (in favor of Moshe Abutbol): 270 to 1, 331 to 1, 339 to 1, 270 to 0, 267 to 1. In the end, Eli Cohen lost by a total of 758 votes.
Worse than the actual numbers were the comments made by chareidim in the main Beit Shemesh Facebook group. From these comments, it was pretty clear that at least 95% of the chareidim who supported Moshe Abutbol would have voted for a crack-addicted baboon if "The Rabbis" had instructed them to do so.
The clearest indication of the lack of moderate chareidim was the failure of the Tov party – who supposedly represents this population – to get into the city council. In the municipal elections in October 2013, Tov failed to get a seat in the city council in Jerusalem and in Elad. In Beit Shemesh, Tov had a seat in the outgoing city council thanks to the 1289 votes it received in the 2008 elections. In the voting in Beit Shemesh in October, Tov received 1299 votes, not enough for a city council seat in light of the population growth since 2008. In the second round of voting – in February 2014 – after it withdrew its support for Eli Cohen, Tov got only 715 votes.
The bottom line: Not only is Tov not getting stronger, it appears to be losing support over time.
So how does this reality fit into the popular theory that chareidi society is changing and that the number of moderate chareidim is growing ?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this theory is simply wrong, and that this misperception is due to the assumption that modernity and moderation are the same thing.
There is some logic to the idea that these two concepts go together. If more chareidim are going to the army and working, then they are having more contact with the non-chareidi population. So one would think that this interaction would lead to more moderate attitudes on the part of the chareidi population.
But while the logic sounds good, it would appear that empirically there is no evidence that this is actually happening
And it looks like it's not only people outside chareidi society, like me, who are concluding that chareidim are not necessarily becoming more moderate.
In an interview to promote his new book "Shachor, Cachol, Lavan" – Dr. Haim Zicherman said the following:
"הם קודם כול ממשיכים להגדיר את עצמם כחרדים, ואז כמובן נשאלת השאלה במה אתה חרדי. הרי אתה עובד, אתה הולך לתיאטרון. אז אני חרדי בזה שאני מצביע ג', או באופי בית הספר שאליו אני שולח את ילדיי, גם אם הוא יותר פתוח מזה שאליו הלכתי בעצמי. אני חרדי בזה שכשתהיה הפגנה של החרדים נגד הגיוס אני אלך לשם, והחרדים המודרנים יאמצו בשאלות האלה את הקו החרדי הקלאסי, אולי אפילו באופן יותר חד מהחרדי 'הנורמטיבי', כי זה הפיצוי שלהם על ההתנהגות האישית המודרנית".
So it seems that these "modern chareidim" may actually be even more likely to support the standard chareidi positions on public issues, since this is how they retain their chareidi identity despite their more modern lifestyle.
It's possible that what we are seeing today is simply the continuation of a trend that was noted already ten years ago by chareidi former Knesset member Tzvia Greenfeld in her book: Hem Mefachadim. Greenfeld suggested that chareidim are being influenced by the Western society that surrounds them. However, they are not adopting the democratic values of that society but only the materialism that is associated with it.
If, indeed, chareidim are becoming more modern, but not more moderate, that is not good news for Israeli society.
The State of Israel does not need modern chareidim. What it needs is moderate chareidim.
Israel does not need more chareidim who use the Internet. What the country needs is more chareidim who believe that in elections people should vote according to their conscience, not according to the dictates of "The Rabbis".
Israel does not need more chareidim that go skiing in the Hermon (or in Switzerland). What the country needs is chareidim that are going to fight against the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation that characterizes chareidi society – starting with the "modesty signs" that one finds in chareidi neighborhoods.
Israel does not need more chareidim that go to plays. What the country needs is chareidim who are going to fight against the exclusion of chareidi woman from any public role, and against the accompanying "rules" such as not allowing pictures of women in chareidi publications.
If the number of truly moderate chareidim does not increase significantly in the coming years, then Zionism and Chareidism will continue on their collision course, a course which our country's leaders are trying so hard to ignore.