Out of the Ghetto

Three boys in black suits and white yarmulkes on a stone-lined street in Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox boys in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem

The rapidly increasing number of haredim and their growing role in Israeli society has generated a great deal of journalism and a steady flow of scholarly writing. Of several books that have attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of the entire phenomenon, Benjamin Brown’s is by far the longest and most informative. The first half (and a little more) of his “guide” consists of a panoramic and illuminating survey of the whole spectrum of groups in Israel that fall under the rubric of “haredim”: Hasidim, Lithuanians, ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, and the heirs to the Old Yishuv community in Jerusalem. The last three chapters focus on the evolving attitudes of all of these ultra-Orthodox groups toward the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, Israeli democracy, and the seemingly insoluble issue of the conscription of haredi men into the Israeli army.

Brown, a professor at the Hebrew University, draws a great deal on his own original research, primarily on Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, who was one of the chief architects, in the middle of the 20th century, of haredi society in Israel. But this book is also a synthesis of much of the latest, and primarily Israeli, scholarship on the haredim. It presents a highly nuanced portrait of some of the more insular and unfamiliar segments of the Israeli population that, with few exceptions, neither condemn nor celebrate the Jewish state they inhabit but strive mostly just to sustain their own way of life—at arm’s length from the rest of the Jews in Israel.

Hebrew language book jacket cover, mostly black with a profile photograph of ultra-Orthodox men.
Cover of Benjamin Brown’s new book

Brown’s analysis in the final chapters highlights the very great degree to which many of the haredim have undergone a process described by the historian Kimmy Caplan as “Israelization” and have come to embody what he calls “Zionism without Zionism,” whether they are conscious of it or not. Even as their leading thinkers continue to reject the premises of Zionism and the legitimacy of the institutions to which it gave birth, Brown observes, “many in the haredi community see themselves as living in solidarity with the state and wish it well, even if their sense of identification with it is less than that of other sectors of the society, and even if it is very secondary to their identification with the particular interests of the haredim.” All in all, his book leaves one with the sense that the centripetal forces drawing the haredim toward other Israelis will ultimately prove stronger than the centrifugal forces pulling them away.

Looking for something else to read? We recommend Shai Secunda’s review of Shababnikim, a hip Israeli television program about ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in Israel, and Shaul Magid’s review of David Assaf’s Untold Tales of the Hasidim.


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