The Jewish demographic threat to Israel

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,┬áthe 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┬ásuch as the equality of women and men, and that maintain a kind of 17th century shtetl lifestyle in our 21st century world.

Haredim in Jerusalem

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?

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9 Responses to “The Jewish demographic threat to Israel”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    the question is – what can be done?

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I wish I knew. Maybe things need to get to a point where average secular Israelis feel threatened enough to react. What’s interesting is the immigration from the former Soviet UNion in the 1990s brought in a huge population of secular Jews (some of the former Russians even continue to have Christmas trees). The Soviet immigrants have shifted the country further to the right politically, but don’t see to have weighed in on the religious debate.

  2. Nicholas Says:

    I don’t believe Iranian religiosity pre-empts education and knowledge.

    (I just re-read this and realized that it sounds a little obtuse. Sorry about that. I think it’s an interesting question, and obviously I felt I had a thought to share!)

    I’m not sure there are any tractable metaphors here. Usually we think of uneducated people as being easily manipulated, but they tend to have heterogeneous interests which can be used to turn subgroups against each other. Here we have a homogenous population with a unified interest, which seems to be more or less, “leave us alone.”

    It’s hard to believe that this is historically a stable political position.

    There’s probably a reasonable likelihood that when the Haredim reach a sort of critical mass of political power a charismatic leader will arise to utilize that power to move the group’s consciousness beyond current internal concerns. Given the increasing mobility of capital, both human and physical, it’s easy to believe that the well-educated, moneyed Israelis will see their best futures abroad, where their fates are not controlled by narrow interests. This will have the effect of further concentrating religious political power.

    It seems hard to imagine a brighter future for Israel unless there exists or will exist a cohesive political platform that seeks to limit the power of the Haredim. This might arise from the technical/entreprenuerial demographic before they bolt, or perhaps even more likely, external forces will change the factors that the political classes see as their priorities. Israel’s history has always been shaped to a great extent by outside forces.

  3. John Mangels Says:

    There is much here I knew nothing about! Thanks.

  4. Wendy Says:

    Fascinating! The cultural- social and political implications of this demographic shift are quite profound. Although this is not my area of study, as a sociologist I wonder if there are many of the Haredim who leave the ultra Orthodox in Israel. In the U.S., there have been a few books that I’ve read that describe the experience of those who leave (both women and men), but it is still a small minority. Ultra Orthodox religious groups in the U.S. must constantly battle the outside influences upon their group, and to maintain social solidarity, they must rigorously enforce in-group practices, including social and cultural isolation. This may be easier to do in Israel, but not in the U.S., thus lower rates of the Haredim leaving their community for a more secular or moderately religious life.

  5. Reuvain Says:

    While there are real differences between the religiously observant and the more secular elements of Israeli society this rant does little to advance the cause of understanding. A few points:

    1. Religious Jews are not exempt from the Army, they receive deferments renewed annually as long as they study. Some of the observant join the army, others attempt to op out. Compromise and understanding by both the army and this growing segment of the population are needed to bridge the gap.

    2. Secular Israelis cannot succeed if they attempt to dictate to religious Jews on how do educate their children etc. Imagine if the religious demanded that all schools dedicate half their time to Talmud and Jewish studies.

    The key issue its time to stop beating the drum. Jews from all sides of the spectrum need to understand that they have a common destiny. The insularity of the religious and the secular are a mirror image of each other. Only by conversation compromise and common sense can these issues be resolved.

    Comparing an observant Jew to the culture of Iran, that uses children for cannon fodder, denies the Holocaust, threatens the extermination of Israel is a disgusting and an insult. Jews who follow the Torah are attempting to observe the traditions of Judaism in a complex modern society. They do not have the culture of violence that dominates Iran. Do religious Jews kill for their religion, do they create terror, suicide bombers. Do they attempt to build nuclear weapons.

    If anyone is guilty of intolerance, bigotry and prejudice its is the writer of this blog.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I agree that there are certainly big differences between the Iranian theocracy and ultra-Orthodox Judaism when it comes to violence, the willingness to imprison and torture dissidents, using children for cannon fodder etc. We could go on and on listing differences.

      What is disturbing, though, is the extent to which both the Iranian theocrats and the Israeli ultra-Orthodox seek to impose their norms on people outside the group. It’s one thing if ultra-Orthodox men choose not to listen to a woman singing. But to have the Israeli army then prohibit women singers from appearing before ALL the troops? Or to have the government arrest non-Orthodox women who seek to read Torah at the Western wall? Or — as just happened in the past few weeks — to pressure advertising agencies into removing all images of women from billboards in Jerusalem, even billboards for women’s fashion? As a secular woman, I am not sure I would be treated any better in a country ruled entirely by the ultra-Orthodox than in Iran.

  6. Barbara Kluger Says:

    The Middle East is too full of powerful religious extremes. The Arab Spring is giving rise to religious rather than secular leadership. As Israel continues allowing Jewish extremists to amass so much political power without requiring them to become fully functional members of the larger society, Israel stands to lose even more support from the U.S. and other democratic nations. These trends can’t be good for Jews in the Diaspora or in Israel. Troubling, but I don’t know what can be done aside from supporting ARZA and other non-orthodox Jewish organizations. Thank you for raising the issue.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Yes, the election results from Egypt today with the rise of the Salafist parties were discouraging — not surprising, but discouraging.

      (FYI, for those not familiar with the acronym, ARZA is the Association of Reform Zionists of America, part of the movement of Reform Judaism.)

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