The Jewish New Year, 5774, is about to begin, and there’s good reason for excitement. All signs indicate that it will be the last of the old-style years — meaning that there won’t be anything like it. Does that mean it will be a good year or a bad one? That’s up to us.
It looks like the year 5774 will be the last year that we can ignore Israel’s future — a future in which the State of Israel will no longer be the same country, whether we’re willing to acknowledge that or not.
According to a special demographic analysis by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2014 68 percent of Israel’s population will be non-Haredi Jews, 11 percent Haredi Jews and roughly 21 percent Arabs. In total, the Zionist Jewish population, the one that established the state and created it in its own image and likeness, is more than two-thirds of the population.
But that won’t last forever. The Central Bureau of Statistics’s demographic prediction states that this majority will eventually disappear. By 2059, the Jewish non-Haredi majority will decline to exactly 50 percent. Alongside it, 23 percent of the population will be Arabs and 27 percent Haredim. Jewish, secular, Zionist Israel will no longer be all that Jewish or secular, and it definitely won’t be Zionist. This will be a different country, period.
But that’s not necessarily bad news. It’s simply the reality we need to recognize: When we wish a happy new year to all Israel’s citizens, we need to mean it in the broadest sense. From now on, wishes for a happy new year need to include the entire spectrum of Israel’s citizens. Whether we like it or not, the Arabs and the Haredim are the country’s demographic future, and if we want to ensure Israel’s future we must embrace, nurture and welcome them.
The strategic planning department at the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Professor Eugene Kandel, has calculated the implications of the demographic change on Israel’s economy. This calculation is definitely bad news. It states that as early as 2014, Israel will have a structural budget deficit of 3 percent because of the gap between state spending for the weak population — a population that is uneducated, does not work and has low productivity — and the state’s revenue from the strong population: the educated, working population whose productivity is high. If Israel does nothing and its strong population decreases from roughly 68 percent to about 50 percent, and the weak populations grow from about 33 percent to about 50 percent, Israel’s structural deficit will become enormous. It is predicted that the deficit will reach 10 percent by 2050. The State of Israel, unable to withstand such a deficit, will collapse financially.
But the future is not necessarily gloomy. It is almost certain that the Haredim and Arabs will constitute half of Israel’s population. What isn’t certain is what sort of citizens they will be. If Israel does nothing and leaves them in their current situation — citizens who do not work, or who work in inferior jobs with low productivity — then financial collapse will be almost inevitable. But if the state embraces, welcomes and nurtures them, the future could be bright. This half of Israel’s population may be different, but it can be just as good as the other half in terms of its contribution to the economy, the gross national product and the standard of living for all its citizens — for everyone, truly.
This is a job we can do. Other countries have undergone demographic change and adapted. In the United States, for example, the white population descended from the English stopped being the majority some decades ago. After the initial shock, and after they got over the feeling that the country had been stolen from under them, they changed their attitude and worked for the good of the U.S. with its new demographic makeup. The election of the first black American president was, of course, the peak of this new attitude.
There is no reason why the State of Israel’s citizens cannot adopt a similar approach. A State of Israel in which non-Haredi Jews are no longer a majority can be a State of Israel that is just as good, only different. The success of this country, with its new face, depends solely on us — and on our ability to ensure the welfare, education and integration into the job market of the Haredim and Arabs. Only this approach will ensure that 5774 will be a happy new year — of the new kind — and bring more happy new years in its wake.