Israel is a country full of minorities. Bedouins, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and more live in this much-coveted land, creating a diverse society with many kinds of people. Among Jews in Israel, there is variety as well—including the ultra-Orthodox community.
Gil Cohen Magen, an Israeli photojournalist and CAMERA speaker, explores the ultra-Orthodox world through his photography. In the past he has also spoken for CAMERA-supported Israel groups at Cal State University, Binghamton University, University of Albany, Stanford University, and King’s College in London, where students have learnt about other photography capturing other facets of Israeli society, including Operation Protective Edge.
Ultra-Orthodox or ‘Haredi’ Jews now make up over 10% of Israeli society yet remain quite a mystery to most of the country. As discussed in the news, Haredi Jews have faced many cultural clashes. While the majority fundamentally objects to drafting into the Israel Defense Forces, many Israelis are now pushing for Haredi Jews to serve in the military. Similarly, regarding education, many ultra-Orthodox Jews are fighting to remain secluded from the secular world but the Israeli government is pushing them to teach basic social studies in their schools.
In an increasingly technological world, many ultra-Orthodox Jews find themselves more exposed to the secular world than in the past. Consequently, many Haredi Jews have become interested in the secular world and its intellectual and cultural freedoms. Many young Haredi Jews are leaving their communities, which can be liberating but also extremely challenging; ultra-Orthodox Jews have been in the headlines recently for many tragic suicides.
As the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds increasingly collide on social and political levels, Israel should not overlook the importance of understanding the mysterious Haredi world. As a democracy that allows all minorities to live according to their traditions, Israeli society could benefit from a better understanding of the ultra-Orthodox community.
This past May, Haaretz featured Gil Cohen Magen’s work. He presented the Haredi ritual of making ‘shmura,’ or ‘protected,’ matzah. While most Jews eat matzah on Passover, ultra-Orthodox Jews only eat matzah that was highly supervised from the moment that the wheat was harvested in the fields.
In addition, he has captured many candid moments of the Haredi world during holidays or weddings. More of Gil Cohen Magen’s work can be found on his website.
Overall, Gil Cohen Magen’s photography portrays the beautiful interactions of all kinds of people in one small country. While Israel suffers from international threats and internal tensions, it has made great efforts to integrate minorities, which should not be taken for granted.
Gil Cohen Magen’s work will continue to remind viewers that Israel holds more than just headlines. Israel is a country of individuals and communities that strive to progress technologically, socially, and politically – but preserve their many traditions as well.
Contributed by CAMERA Intern Penina Simkovitz