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In Israel, gentrification is about religion, not class

Shoshana Kordova
January 07, 2011
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said. To view all the entries in this series, click here.

“What’s more dangerous for Israel,” asks an op-ed in Maariv. “Islamization or Haredization?”

“Haredization,” or hithardut in Hebrew, shares the same root as “Haredi,” the religious ideology that is colloquially known in the United States as “black hat” or “yeshivish.” Often translated as “ultra-Orthodox,” “Haredi” literally means “one who fears,” in the sense of fearing God.

But while the word “Haredization” makes sense in English, too (at least to those who have heard of haredim), its meaning in English tends to be limited to the rightward tendencies of Orthodox Judaism. In Hebrew, “hithardut” has broader connotations, partly because of the extent to which religious and civil society—synagogue and state—are intertwined.

Say “hithardut” in Israel and you call up visions of an increasing number of citizens who refuse to join the workforce or serve in the army—and must be supported, and defended, by the very Jews who risk getting beaten up by Haredim aboard certain public buses if they dare to sit in the section designated for the opposite sex.

Perhaps the most widespread use of some form of the word “hithardut,” though, is in reference to demographic changes in a neighborhood, city, or town. In this sense, it is similar to the English term “gentrification,” especially since both connote potential downsides (being priced out of a gentrifying neighborhood, being made to feel unwelcome in a “Haredifying” one) of a demographic shift.

Much of Israelis’ resistance to Haredim—and you are not likely to hear the word hithardut spoken in a warm tone of voice—can be traced to the disproportionately large influence over Israeli law and politics, personal status, and Judaism that is wielded by a minority that says it doesn’t believe in the authority of the state institutions that fund and protect it, and whose members periodically stage riots if they disapprove of the way the state exercises its authority.

When Haredim move into a non-Haredi community, the pent-up resentment is literally brought home, leaving longtime residents to fear —with some justification—that it won’t take long before they feel they are being pushed out of their homes, especially if they don’t keep Shabbat or adhere to the Haredi dress code. Sometimes that fear gives rise to rhetoric about “Haredi infiltration” and a “total takeover” that can sound, disconcertingly, almost as though it could have come from white homeowners in suburban America who are worried that letting a black family move next door will lower their property value. It is, after all, far easier for non-Haredim to target the new neighbors than to change the government policies that planted the seeds for their resentment.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has been living in Israel since 2001.