Opinion

When Israeli Arabs Make It to Mars, Haredim Will Still Be Stuck Here, Praying

Israel’s Arabs have made great strides in education while the growing ultra-Orthodox population is leaving Jews behind

Mars (illustration. This picture shows two astronauts ostensibly standing on Martian soil, with a steep unearthlike-hill to their left and an extremely rugged unearthlike moon in the red sky).
Sergydv, Thinkstock

Meet Israel’s leading startup entrepreneur circa 2065. His name is Riyad Alkadiri.

Alkadiri got his degree in computer science from the Technion in Haifa and spent a few years in Silicon Valley before coming home to launch his interplanetary ride-hailing app LyftOff.

“There are so many empty seats on Mars flights – we’re filling the gap between supply and demand,” he boasts. “We’re looking into pilotless-rockets, now.”

Alkadiri’s startup employs 250 people, nearly all of them Israeli Arabs like himself.

“I’d like to hire more Jews, but it’s hard to find any with the science and math background we need,” he says. “The government should really be doing something about this. Israel can’t rely on Arabs to keep Startup Nation afloat.”

Even Israelis who want to put an end to the second-class status of Arabs in the country don’t imagine the tables being turned one day. But if you do a simple, straight-line analysis of educational and social trends – the idea isn’t so far-fetched.

The percentage of Israeli Arab 17-year-olds who received a matriculation certificate (bagrut) grew from less than 29% to over 50%, far faster than the rate for Israeli Jews, between 2000 and 2015. At the university level, the number of Arabs studying science and engineering has increased by one-third in the five years ending in the 2014/15 academic year. Some 11% were studying math and science (equal to the proportion of Jewish Israelis), 2% studied medicine (double the Jewish rate) and 15% were enrolled in allied health professions (triple the Jewish rate).

We’re still a long way from equality in the classroom and lecture hall. Compared to their Jewish peers, Arabs perform even more miserably on standardized exams, more of them drop out of high school, and fewer enter university or find work in the tech sector. But the trend is clear.

For one, the government is starting to invest in schools, housing and infrastructure in the Arab communities. Perhaps even more importantly, the birthrates in those locales are falling fast ־ to about 3.1 per woman, not far from the rate among non-ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews of 2.6. Fewer children means parents have more time and money to invest in each one.

In other words, Israeli Arabs are becoming middle class.

The rational brain, the beating heart

It would be nice to think that this has something to do with the changing attitudes of Jewish Israelis toward the Arab minority, but there is little evidence of that. Quite the contrary: It seems that the same government that has approved plans to spend billions developing Arab town can’t help engaging in Arab-baiting, which it sees as popular among many voters. It’s as if the rational, economic brain can’t control its populist heart.

Meanwhile, educational gains among Israeli Arabs are being paralleled by the dumbing down of the average Jewish Israeli.

The reason for that is the rapidly growing Haredi population, where the birthrate is also declining but is still about seven children per woman. By 2065, when our hypothetical Alkadiri is laying out his plans for pilotless rockets, the projection of the Central Bureau of Statistics is that Haredim will constitute about one-third of the country’s population.

Even today, when they make up approximately 10% of the population, Haredim are an economic burden because their education does not include core subjects like math, science and English that prepare them for productive employment. The country's Jews do study the core curriculum, but only 85.3% of the entire high school-age Jewish population has access to math courses and only 62.4% to computer science, because the proportion of Haredim studying those subjects is so low that it brings down the average. Moreover, a greater proportion of Israeli Arabs study the Hebrew language than do Haredim.

In a situation that is probably unique in the developed world, older Israelis are more likely to have a university degree than younger ones. That’s partly due to the wave of unusually well-educated Russian immigrants that arrived in the country in the 1990s, but also because of the growing Haredi population.

Where will we be in 2065 if these trends continue? The answer is an Israel that’s more impoverished and less educated. Far from being Startup Nation, it will technologically backward and the opposite of everything the first 70 years of the state sought to accomplish.

Certainly everything should be done to encourage the advances the Israeli Arab minority has made, but it’s just as important that the rest of Israel doesn’t move in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the government’s contradictory attitude toward Israeli Arabs is echoed among its Jewish population: There’s endless praise of Startup Nation and innovation and the importance of encouraging people to study science and engineering, but at the same time the Haredim are given a free pass to avoid a secular education and army service.