The moment of truth
Among those within the primary working ages of 25 to 54, 73 percent of the ultra-Orthodox men and 79 percent of Arab-Israeli women are not employed. In the future, who will be able to finance non-working lifestyles at the rates to which these groups are currently accustomed?
Yogi Berra's saying, "It's deja vu, all over again," best describes a gnawing sensation that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In the 1970s, the State of Israel began to settle Jews within the heart of Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza, even as it completely ignored relative differences in birth rates between the populations. During the past few years, we have been experiencing the consequences of that leadership blindness. It is still not clear how we will extricate ourselves from that trap - and yet, here we go again. The cost of ignorance this time may be existential.
In Israel today, there reside two minorities whose members do not share the country's Israeli-Zionist narrative. As some try to keep themselves apart from the majority, however, many in the majority have adopted the "out of sight, out of mind" approach, and remain oblivious to what is occurring within these populations - as though what happens among them has nothing to do with us. This attitude is sometimes reflected in discrimination and sometimes in political coalition agreements with clauses that provide monetary disbursements to relieve pent-up pressures among those groups.
In the meantime, a process has been unfolding that has no parallel in the Western world. Among those within the primary working ages of 25 to 54, 73 percent of the ultra-Orthodox men and 79 percent of Arab-Israeli women are not employed. Thus far, the adult populations of these two groups are still sufficiently small for the state to be able to finance their non-working lifestyles, even at these rates. But, as in the case of the West Bank and Gaza settlements, what transpires over the period of a few decades is primarily dependent upon the relative growth rates of the different populations.
It is difficult to overstate the pace at which Israeli society is changing. In 1960, 15 percent of primary-school pupils studied in either the ultra-Orthodox or the Arab-sector school systems (these are today's adults). In 1980, this rate reached 27 percent, and last year it was 46 percent.
If we don't find a way to integrate these populations into a shared Israeli narrative, and immediately, then in another generation or two - at most - the demographic balance within Israel will change the country beyond recognition.
In that future, who will be able to finance non-working lifestyles at the rates to which these groups are currently accustomed? Who will be able to assemble a majority in the Knesset that would make it possible to change these conditions, even when it is clear that we cannot possibly continue to underwrite them? Who will provide the country with its defensive shield? If the Israeli narrative ends up being that of the ultra-Orthodox or the Arab-Israelis, how many of the children from today's majority will want to continue living here?
We are fast approaching the point of no return, and it is time that all sides internalize what's at stake. Without citizens willing both to work for a living and to risk their lives to defend this country, Israel will cease to exist. With it, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who live here will cease to exist too.
And with all of the unconscionable discrimination faced by Israel's Arab citizens, they don't have to look any farther than Gaza or Nablus to understand what kind of alternative existence awaits them in such a future. It is no coincidence that, in all of the polls and surveys conducted, Arab-Israelis have been consistently opposed to the idea of their towns and villages becoming part of a future state of Palestine, in the context of a peace agreement that calls for a land swap.
We all have a lot to lose if we don't get our collective act together, and soon. A necessary condition for changing direction is to mandate an identical program of education in the core subjects - with no distinction on the basis of religion or the degree of religious observance - for all of Israel's pupils.
They all need to understand the importance that this country holds for their lives, the importance of working for a living, and the importance of defending their country and their way of life. An additional necessary condition is mandatory military or civilian service forall.
Where are the leaders who are ready to level with the nation and declare that we have reached the moment of truth in Israel's history? Where are the citizens who are ready to get off the couch and send these statistics to their elected representatives?
The writer teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy of Tel Aviv University.
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