Israel’s Core Is Crumbling – and It’s More Important Than the Iran Deal

More ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and religious Jews and fewer secular Jews: the impact of demographic changes on Israeli society will only get stronger.

Olivier Fitoussi

Someone who wants to know where Israel is headed need not listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or analyze investor confidence in the capital markets. He can save time by going directly to chart 8.12 of Israel’s statistical yearbook forecasting the number of students and demand for primary school teachers. This table shows the number of first-grade pupils, divided by school system – state, state religious, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Arab – and projecting numbers for the following five years.

The data and trends are clear. The secular core of Israeli society is shrinking, while the other groups are expanding.

The stereotypical image presented in television programs, in popular culture, in the nostalgia surveys on Independence Day and in Yair Lapid’s question to his interviewees, “What is Israeli in your eyes?” is disappearing. The sectarian identity of “tribes,” to use President Reuven Rivlin’s term, which don’t mix and prefer to see only themselves and ignore the others, is replacing the old image.

The disintegration of Israeli society’s core, which has led it from pre-state days, and the strengthening of the minorities are the most influential factors impacting Israeli politics and its economy – much more than Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and more than the gas deal or the Iran nuclear deal.

The latest Knesset election signaled victory for the tribes. The ultra-Orthodox returned to a key position in the coalition. The Arabs united to form the third-largest party in the Knesset. The national religious lost some power at the polls, but established themselves as the leading influential factor on the government.

Netanyahu and Lapid tried, together with Naftali Bennett, in the previous Knesset to weaken the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox politically and economically. They cut ultra-Orthodox budgets and threatened to draft their youths into the army, calling it “equality of the burden.” They sought to suppress the Arabs by limiting freedom of expression and to expel tens of thousands of Negev Bedouin from their unrecognized villages via the Prawer plan. The minorities objected and the plans were tossed into the garbage, or rolled back by the present government.

Rivlin noted in his “tribe” speech in June that the television weather map does not show ultra-Orthodox or Arab communities. What a nice illusion: If we don’t see Umm al-Fahm and Modi’in Ilit on the screen at home, perhaps we’ll forget about their existence. It’s convenient for the secular mainstream to ignore the minorities, but this avoidance doesn’t change reality – it just shoves it aside.

A generation ago, 60 percent of Israeli children learned in secular state schools. Two years ago just 41.5 percent of first-graders attended those schools. Looking forward, the number of ultra-Orthodox first-graders and Arab first-graders will grow by 4.3 percent and 2.5 percent respectively, while the number of secular first-graders will contract slightly, comprising 37.2 percent of their cohort in four years.

Family trends among the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs are feeding this revolution. They start families earlier and have more children than secular Jews. Meanwhile, a slower pace of immigration, continued emigration, extended study trips and relocations, as well as increased requests for European passports characterize the secular Jewish tribe but not the kippa wearers – the ones with sidelocks – or Arabic speakers.

This trend presents complex challenges for Israel. Firstly, there is no consensus on a joint, unifying national ethos. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, who do not wave the flag or sing the national anthem, reject the “Jewish and democratic state” formula. As long as they were weak, small minorities, the center ignored them and moved on. But when half the first-graders belong to the non-Zionist tribes, the national anthem and flag have a problem.

President Rivlin is the only politician talking about this problem and presents it in its full severity, but the solution he offers – annexing territories and equal citizenship for all Jews and Palestinians – deters many and does not look realistic for the time being.

The low employment rate of ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women, the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox to engage in core studies (English and math to boys after sixth grade), and the discrimination and weakening of the Arab education system threaten to slow economic growth and bury the “startup nation.”

If this trend is not reversed, fewer and fewer workers and taxpayers will have to carry on their backs giant communities of welfare recipients. Gas royalties will help blur the problem a bit, but they won’t turn Israel into Saudi Arabia. Israel will also have to rely on exports and investments from abroad in order to grow.

The Israel Defense Forces will have a hard time claiming that it is the “people’s army” when most youths – Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox girls – will be exempt from the draft. It will necessarily become a professional army. This process is already clear, despite the denials and clichés of defense establishment leaders. The decision to cut mandatory service and the digging in of career military personnel behind their economic benefits bear witness that the army has become another community or tribe that needs to fight against its rivals in the battle over vital resources, and is no longer the agreed-on melting pot of Israeli society. The chief of staff perhaps torpedoed the Locker report, but he can’t stop the transition into a professional army whose central position is disputed.

Compared to the demographic revolution, the fights over the gas deal and bank reform seem like foam on a giant wave. The question that should occupy every Israeli, certainly its political leadership, is how a state divided into rival tribes, which suffers from underemployment and under-education, whose founding core is falling apart, persists. There is no question more important, and sadly no one currently has a solution or idea for a new national ethos.