On CNN’s Believer with Reza Aslan tonight, Aslan heads to Jerusalem to immerse himself in the world of the Haredim and explore the tensions between this isolated group and secular Jews in Israel.
This is personal for Aslan. In 1979 he fled Iran as his home country went from secular to oppressive and religiously run. He sees the same worrisome patterns now in Israel.
Walking among devout jews, he senses their distrust. Aslan says: “There’s a lot of conflicting feelings here, no matter what I say or do, someone is going to get pissed off….this episode is the one that is the hardest for me to do.”
He argues that the conflict is not between Palestinian versus jew but with Israelis deciding what it means to be real jew in a state full of people with varying levels of faith. The real battle internally in Israel is currently over ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews and what they should be responsible for as Israeli citizens.
The Haredi families have loads of children and compounding their poverty, the men do not work but pray all day. The Haredi take welfare and the secular Israelis are sick of footing the bill. The growing ranks of Haredim are a protected class who do not have to join the IDF and National Service, like all other Israelis.
Secular Israelis bristle at the insistence that they need to change their behavior, as Haredi would like them to modify themselves to be more devout. The religious subculture is fighting back hard against any modernity and the only thing that appears to be holding these isolated communities together at all is their collective victimization myth and xenophobia.
Aslan notes that this wouldn’t be such a big deal if they recused themselves from politics too, but they do not.
He enlists a guide to tour an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where the open stares and the overall vibe are unfriendly. No Internet, phones that are “Kosher” and walls plastered with fliers serving as news and public shaming of specific women are everywhere. This insulated society uses these walls to police the morals and relay the news they think the people need to know. The Haredi world is completely Orwellian with a side of Khomeini.
Just like evangelical Christians who believe think every word in the bible fell out of a white-haired, white male God’s mouth, the Haredi take every word in Torah literally and give no f**** about other Jews or people in Israel’s feelings, and they do it violently.
They use this immovable stance and their political power mercilessly. Israelis now realize they have a real problem and have coddled this class of Israeli far too long. In 1948 when the country was born, Haredi refused to involve themselves in politics. This is now changed.
In Bet Shemesh, Nili Philip is interviewed. Her goal is to roll back the sexist encroachment of the Haredi in her city. “This was such a nice place when we got here,” she laments.
The modesty police destroyed a mall in construction, this self-policing group of men and children throw rocks, spit and literally destroy property. They take over schools and eject anyone not in their extreme faith. She says, “They have their own law.”
Some affluent and educated Israelis celebrate Shabbat with Reza. He sits at a progressive educated family’s table headed by an architect. These educated residents reminisce how their neighborhood has been taken over by the Haredi.
At this dinner, filmmaker Gigi Dar says to Aslan: “We [secularists] are losing.”
Aslan is invited to an ultra-Orthodox family home. The woman has the money-making career, plus she cooks, cleans, births and raises the kids and does everything while the man goes to Yeshiva and studies Torah while he prays all day. That’s all he and other Haredi men do.
The secular Jewish/Israeli resentment towards the Haredi is brought up. Aslan asks the Haredi man if he would allow his children to learn in a secular school? No way. Haredi children have no recognizable childhood. They are made to study Torah 10 hours a day except for Saturdays. The girls are required to do everything else while being policed for modesty.
Aslan posits that this isolationism and refusal to accept any progressive ideals will jeopardize Israel’s future if the Haredi take over.
There’s a problem in Jerusalem too. The Western Wall where jews pray is segregated by sex. The women can only pray at Robinson’s Arch and are not allowed to wear any religious garments or even touch the Torah.
Aslan interviews a scholar who says women need to know their place and obey the laws of Judaism. The growing women’s movement is up against an intractable force with these hardliner Haredi. But change within the Haredi world will likely come from a growing women’s movement inside the restrictive wing of Judaism.
“This is not the Israel of 2000 years ago,” Aslan says.
The modern world is not compatible with the Haredi. “Change is inevitable,” he says, but not for these isolated and politically empowered warriors of the Torah.
Towards the end of the episode, Aslan happens upon what can only be described as a hippie group of Haredi who follows “happy” Rabbi Nachman. These Haredi have special yarmulkes with “antennae” to pick up celestial energy and even travel in a van. Nachman preaches the Torah of happiness ALL.THE.TIME. He preaches that God hates sadness. It’s unnerving as they dance and sing and laugh every minute of the day.
Aslan drinks the kosher Kool-Aid and dons a modified yarmulke.
We wrap up with Aslan examining the schism within the Haredim, with these happy hippies and the dour ones who will stone you if you show an ankle. The happy Haredim suddenly take a time out to pray to Hashem [God] in nature and find solitude to pray and give thanks.
This episode more than any other Aslan has done shows the overarching problem worldwide, as the orthodox and fundamentalists of all the faiths are a headache for progressives, educated and especially women.
The Israelis have their hands full with this growing population of Haredi, and there is no easy fix with a self-righteous soul who closes themselves off from any other truths, whether they are Christian, Muslim or jew.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel – Believer with Reza Aslan airs Sunday at 10 PM on CNN