Israel's Real Existential Threat Is Arab and Haredi Isolation

Israel is in the midst of a social change as the demographic balance tips away from secularism.

The answer to the question of where this country is headed is hidden in table 8.11 of Israel's annual Statistical Abstract, which shows "Projections of Students in Primary Education" for the coming five years. These are the figures: In the current school year, 47.5 percent of first-graders are either Arabs or Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). The growth rate of the Haredi school system is 39 times greater than that of the state secular schools, and that of the Arab school system is 13 times greater. These are not demographic forecasts, which can turn out to be false; these are children who have already been born and are awaiting their turn in the education system. This is reality.

Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented social change that, unlike in the past, stems from internal developments rather than from a wave of immigration. A different, multicultural society is developing here - a trinational state of secular Jews, Haredim and Arabs, with a small minority of religious Zionists.

Social and cultural diversity has a lot of charm, but in Israel, it is a problem. These three communities have different narratives and lack a common, unifying national ethos. Cohabitation has been imposed on them. Even worse, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are not obliged to serve in the army, and most Haredi men and Arab women do not work. If this situation continues, who will protect the state, and who will pay for the growing population of welfare recipients?

"The gaps in military service create a sense of injustice, but the problem of employment is really existential," a senior government economist warned. "We have about 15 years to resolve this. If we fail, Israel will not be able to sustain itself: For every worker, we will have four people not working."

It is hard to exaggerate the severity of the situation, or the complexity of the challenge. The Arabs want to work, but are finding it difficult to break the walls of isolation and discrimination erected by the Jewish majority. Among the Haredim, a social norm has taken root that prefers Torah study to work. Both communities are non-Zionist and are suspicious of and hostile toward the authorities.

The country's leadership, which ignored the problem, knows about the time bomb on its doorstep. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi fears the army will not have enough conscripts in a decade or two. President Shimon Peres is trying to rally business tycoons to hire Arab workers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants Arabs and Haredim to join the high-tech world. His economic adviser, Prof. Eugene Kandel, is also looking for solutions, and the finance minister and the treasury's director general are equally concerned.

What should be done? The solutions that politicians and columnists propose for this social challenge have generally focused on repressing the minorities: If we strip the Arabs of their citizenship and the Haredim of their welfare payments and remove them from decision making, we will preserve the economic and status supremacy of the secular core and its affiliates. This is unacceptable ethically, but it is also impractical if we consider the numbers.

Economic pressures, which are forcing Haredim to look for work and Jewish employers to take on Arabs, are fueling a slow change in the employment scene, and government programs like national civilian service or special army tracks for Haredim are helping to break down the walls. But it is not enough. We need a revolution in how the shrinking majority views minorities.

We must recognize that our future depends on integrating Arabs and Haredim into mainstream society. Instead of considering them freeloaders who want to eat our cake, we must start viewing them as a great opportunity: If Israel has managed to reach its current standard of living without them, one can only imagine where we could go with the added talent and motivation that is not currently being tapped. These are enormous economic resources - far greater than the natural gas reserves found off Haifa.

Today, developing a broad national ethos that would include Arabs and Haredim seems like mission impossible. It is obvious that a rightist government headed by Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman is not built for this.

Therefore, we must concentrate on change from the bottom up. Everyone must ask himself or herself how he or she can contribute to integration: buying in shops that employ Arabs and Haredim, hiring workers from these communities, renting apartments to them or simply watching television programs and channels that represent our multicultural mosaic. And get to know an Arab or a Haredi instead of fearing them.

If we open our doors to them and give them opportunities, we will all benefit. And if we continue to shut ourselves off, we will all crash.