JERUSALEM — A string of protests by ultra-Orthodox Jewish activists against Israel’s compulsory military service has paralyzed Jerusalem in recent weeks in what their leaders had hoped would be a show of strength by the traditionally insular society.

Instead, the demonstrations reflect a desperate attempt by members of a vocal minority trying to preserve a lifestyle that is rapidly changing around them.

Widely seen as a drag on the country’s economy, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox world is being forced to adapt – with growing numbers embracing technology, pursuing higher education, entering the workforce and even serving in the army.

Experts say tomorrow’s ultra-Orthodox will look much different from the community that mainstream Israel fears today.

“If you are expecting everything to change tomorrow morning – that is not going to happen. But if this is done quietly and it is not forced upon us, it will happen on its own,” said Gidon Katz, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who runs an advertising and public relations agency in Jerusalem.


For decades, the ultra-Orthodox have leveraged their significant political power into maintaining a segregated lifestyle. They run a separate network of schools, enjoy sweeping military draft exemptions and raise large families on taxpayer-funded handouts.

The system has fed a visceral culture war between the largely cloistered ultra-Orthodox and the secular majority resentful of what it considers preferential treatment.

As their numbers have grown, many in the impoverished community realize their way of life is unsustainable. In a previously unseen phenomenon, the recent protests have exposed open resistance from within the community.

“Judaism never said there was anything wrong with working,” said Katz, noting that it is no longer uncommon to see ultra-Orthodox lawyers, accountants and high-tech executives. “The study of Scripture is the highest calling. That’s the ideal but it’s not for everyone.”

The ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as “Haredim,” or “those who fear God,” are the fastest growing sector in Israel.

Because of their high birth rate, they now number more than 1 million people, or about 12 percent of Israel’s 8.7 million citizens. The majority live beneath the poverty line, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.


Their numbers are expected to rise to 14 percent in 2024, 19 percent in 2039 and 27 percent in 2059, the think tank predicted – figures that have sparked fear of Israel’s developed economy being saddled with a workforce that’s not prepared for the modern world.

Gilad Malach, an institute researcher who specializes in the community, said such fears are exaggerated.

Malach believes the modernizing effect will make the Haredi community far more educated and employable, much the way ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States and Europe have adapted.

“The apocalyptic vision will not come to fruition because they will be different,” Malach said. “For those trying to cling to the old ways, the war is lost.”