Israeli sociologist explores the Haredi community

The Globe and Mail, Canada/October 7, 2011

Jerusalem -- The story this week about two Israeli teenage girls being sent by their parents to an extreme Hasidic sect north of Montreal, only to be returned to Israel while a court determines their fate, brought to mind a famous case of another child being abducted by an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) relative half a century ago.

Yosalle Shuchmacher was six years old in the late 1950s when his secular parents left him in the care of his Haredi grandfather. When the parents went to collect him, the grandfather refused to return him and hid him, first in Israel, then in New York, so that he would receive a proper religious upbringing (among Haredim).

It took four years, but eventually, with the help of Israel's intelligence service Mossad, the boy, then 10, was located and returned to his parents.

It is only incidents such as these, or cases of Haredim rioting when traffic comes near their communities on the Sabbath, or when construction unearths an ancient cemetery, that we delve into this community and its ways that seem strange to most of us.

In a fascinating new book, Theocratic Democracy, Israeli sociologist Nachman Ben Yehuda, takes a deeper look and explores how and why the community and its many divisions and sects have mastered the use of violence to assert their religious agenda.

He writes:

"Haredim strive to have total control over individual life, from the exterior – clothing – to the inner psychic making, including feelings, emotions, perceptions and cognitions. This totalitarian aspiration is the result of a feeling that the Haredi lifestyle has a full, all-encompassing hold on the ultimate and eternal truth. This feeling can give much comfort, and a strong sense of security, to the believers, but it also breeds suspicion, zealotry, contempt and lack of tolerance for what is different. It also seems to grant permission to Haredi control agents to intervene – supposedly in the name of that transcendental truth – in each and every aspect of one's life."

"The Hebrew word Haredi derives from harada –fear and anxiety – meaning "he who is anxious about and/or fearful of the word of the Almighty." This is not a simple fear, but anxiety to live the kind of life that the Almighty instructed the disciples to live, as is expressed in the Halakha. The term Haredi refers to a distinct form of Judaism, the practitioners of which see themselves, first and foremost, as committed to strict adherence to Halakhic rules, and view themselves as a society of students, or pupils, defending itself against the secular world."

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