Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Religious Fundamentalist Natalism: Not Just a US Christian Phenomenon

Lots of my favourite blogs (such as Digby's, Pandagon, and Echidne of the Snakes) have written long exegeses of the article "Arrows for the War" by Kathryn Joyce at The Nation. The is an exploration of natalism, pro-reproductive propaganda, and what the Israeli press often refers to, charmingly, as "demographic warfare" in certain extreme fundamentalist Christian sects in the United States. I wish the phenomenon were that limited.

However, as Tamar Rotem at Haaretz informs us, that's not the case. Her article is called "How many children does it take to be righteous?" and is about the phenomenon among Haredi (Hassidic or ultra-Orthodox) Jews of having huge families, sometimes as many as eighteen children in the examples she cites. She writes,

The death of Ahuva Klachkin revealed a relatively new phenomenon: The flourishing of very large families. These are parents who at the age of 40 have long since passed the 12-child mark. They are common primarily within Hassidic communities. Although in the ultra-Orthodox community, and not only there, people refer to large families as "child blessed" families, it seems worthwhile questioning whether it is, indeed, a blessing.

Previous articles on the Haredi community in Haaretz also reveal two things -- the community is growing, and it is becoming stricter and more intolerant of outsiders.

From a feminist perspective, this is bad news for secular people in Israel, much as the increasing (or increased) political clout of fundamentalist Christian extremists in the United States has been devastating to their political scene. In particular, there are three points that are particularly disturbing.

Rotem writes, "The words of the elderly rabbi, which exalt the woman who asked nothing for herself, who lived only for the sake of her children, emphasize this society's protest and struggle against the worship of individuality and individual needs, and against the addiction to the consumerist culture which it believes characterizes non-Haredi society," but the reaction isn't only to consumerism or modernism, but also to feminism. The Haredi exalt the woman who completely subsumes her identity into her children, who has no independent selfhood of her own (and, as the article states later, often drags several of her older female children into the "mothering" role since she cannot conceivably care for so many children unassisted -- we note the boys don't get dragooned into changing diapers and peeling potatoes).

Several of the interviewees in Rotem's article also claim that these Haredi eskhetot khayilot* do this of their own free will, for various reasons, including that they "love to give birth," and that "e
very baby that arrive[s is] a blow to Hitler." According to "Dr. Hannah Katan, a senior gynecologist at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center who specializes in female health in the Haredi sector," these women have many children not out of obligation or other forms of social coercion, but "'rather from the women's clear choice. The social reality is that Haredi women love to give birth to many children though they are under no familial, religious or any other pressure.'" Spoken like a true tool of the patriarchy, I think.

Based on Roten's paragraph talking about the Haredi midwife, who says, "
from her experience, and from living in the ultra-Orthodox society, she knows women there are suffering from both mental and physical diseases. She says she can immediately spot women who just gave birth, because they often suffer from being overweight, since they never manage to shed the accumulated fat between births. 'You can see them on Geula Street. Most of them walk very slowly and look very old, but they are actually fairly young, '" I'm disinclined to believe that Haredi women are, in fact, making uncoerced choices here, because they're born and raised in a society where not only do the men get up every morning and pray "Thank G-d I was not born a woman," but they're told that the only way they can achieve eskhat khayil status isn't through their accomplishments or anything to do with themselves, but rather by having lots of children. The paragraph where one of the interviewees "almost apologises" for only having five children -- because of health reasons, he assures Rotem, seems to clinch it.

More realistically than in Joyce's article about the Quiverfulls, we find a depiction of Haredi Israelis living hand-to-mouth and on charity. (The Hasidic Rebel, an excellent blogger who got snowed under by a nor'easter of publicity, wrote about similar problems in Haredi communities in New York City, as well.)

In short, what we have here is a community of people who are dedicated to "womb warfare," as Echidne put it, who have difficulty supporting their lifestyle in a modern urban environment (eighteen children on a low-tech farm is almost more of an asset than a liability), who nevertheless have significant political power. Is this a good situation for anyone?


________

* In his book The Joys of Hebrew, Lewis Glinert translates the term as "superwoman; literally 'woman of value (or valor).'"

5 Comments:

Blogger Sanjay said...

You are right about this. Religious fundamentalism exists in most of the major religions of the world.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Anne Johnson said...

It will be interesting to see how many of the quiverfull kids break ranks and spend their lives childless and irreligious. I just don't believe in happy families of 12 kids. Someone's getting the short end of the stick.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

My best friend in high school was the youngest daughter of a family of unreconstructed old-school Catholics. There were 11 children in the family. There would have been 13, except her mother had had two miscarriages.

They sure didn't put the "fun" in "dysfunctional," that's for sure. Most of her siblings only had at most three kids, as well. (Still, the "Wall of Baby Pictures of Grandkids" was kind of scary in a Malthusian sense. If you have nine kids who each have two or three kids, that's a lot of grandchildren...)

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