Like many other American Jews, I’ve heard warnings for a long time about the Arab demographic threat to Israel. If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, this argument goes, the Palestinian population will outnumber the Jewish population and the country will have to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democracy.
During my visit to Israel this month, though, I heard over and over about a different demographic threat facing the country — an ultra-Orthodox demographic threat.
Recent decades have seen huge population growth among Israeli haredim — the extremely observant, black-hatted sects within Orthodox Judaism that believe halacha (Talmudic law) should govern every aspect of their lives, that don’t accept modern reforms such as the equality of women and men, and that maintain a kind of 17th century shtetl lifestyle in our 21st century world.
The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from Israel’s compulsory three years of military service since the founding of the state. They receive government funding to run their own school systems, which unlike in the U.S. are not required to teach secular subjects such as math. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have institutionalized Torah study to a point where few adult men hold jobs: They are all expected to study in yeshiva, regardless of their aptitude or interest. They typically have large families of seven, eight or more children. Sometimes the wives work to support the family, but most haredim live in poverty, supported by Israeli welfare payments or charity from abroad.
Secular and moderately-religious Israelis have had occasional friction with the ultra-Orthodox for years. When I lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, the ultra-Orthodox would throw stones at any cars that happened to drive through their neighborhoods on Shabbat. Secular Israelis chafe at the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce. Feminists continue to protest against Orthodox-driven rules that prohibit women from reading Torah at the Western Wall.
But these occasional conflicts may be dwarfed by the demographic issues looming ahead.
The ultra-Orthodox population is growing at an estimated six percent each year — far above the general Jewish Israeli growth rate of about two percent. That means the ultra-Orthodox population will double every twelve years.
While Haredim today make up about eight or nine percent of Israel’s adult populace, by 2028 they are likely to account for more than one-fifth of the Jewish population in Israel.
One-fifth of the Jewish population relying on the other 4/5 to defend it militarily. One-fifth of the population relying on the other 4/5 to support it financially. One-fifth of the population without the basic educational skills to hold jobs in Israel’s increasingly high-tech economy.
I heard concern about this over and over from the scientific and high-tech leaders I met.
“The way this country is going, we are in deep, deep trouble,” said Zehev Tadmor, a former president of the Technion, Israel’s premier engineering and science university. “Maybe in 20 years the Technion becomes a yeshiva? We will have 27 percent of students who are ultra-Orthodox, and 20 percent who are Arabs. The Arabs are less of a problem because they want to become scientists. What number of ultra-Orthodox can a country bear without them entering into productive jobs?”
Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman, who just won the Nobel Price in chemistry, has been beating a drum about the need for science and math education for all Israeli students — including the ultra-Orthodox, whose secular knowledge is often limited to basic addition and subtraction. Some never even learn multiplication.
“My grandchildren are the sixth generation in this country,” Shechtman said at a Technion ceremony last week honoring him for the prize. “I am a real Zionist. I want them to feel good in this country. The task is to bring about an understanding that we will not have redemption without good education for everybody. We need to make sure every person in Israel receives an excellent education.”
This problem needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. On the political front, the government needs to find the guts to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox and insist that their young people receive a secular as well as religious education. (But that is sadly unlikely, given how the Israeli parliamentary system gives disproportionate power to small parties such as the religious parties when they are needed to form a coalition government.)
On the cultural front, secular and moderately-religious Israelis should insist upon a religiously pluralistic society, and reject the common assumption that religion = Orthodox Judaism.
On the economic front, efforts need to be made to provide training and job opportunities to haredim who are willing to engage with broader Israeli society.
In one example of that last point, the Technion has started an 18-month program of remedial math and science studies for ultra-Orthodox men interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree there. It also offers a three-year program in mapping and surveying at a haredi school in Bnei Brak.
Promising. But those are only little steps affecting a handful of haredim. And the potential solutions present other problems. How far should Israeli society bend to accommodate the integration of the ultra-Orthodox?
Recently several Orthodox Israeli soldiers protested the appearance of women singers at cultural events for the troops. The Army responded by agreeing to eliminate all women soloists. So the talented young women in the Army’s musical unit may now sing as part of a choir, but not solo.
What does the ultra-Orthodox population boom mean for Israel? Are we moving toward something that is a Jewish version of Iran?