The War That Will Decide Israel’s Future Won’t Involve Airstrikes, Tanks or Missiles

We have 30 years before enlightened Israel sinks into poor and illiberal darkness. This time, the threat is a militant religious fundamentalism of our own

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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks next to a synagogue during the celebrations of Simchat Torah at the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem October 1, 2018
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks next to a synagogue during the celebrations of Simchat Torah at the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem October 1, 2018Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

In recent years, many among Israel’s secular public, the majority of the population, have come to accept the contention put forward by the religious parties and others, that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population cannot be forced to serve in the IDF, study the core school curriculum, participate in the labor force and accept gender, ethnic and religious equality.

Instead, they maintain, what is needed is patience and tolerance in order to provide for the gradual "integration" of the Haredim into Israel’s broader society. 

To be sure, some progress has been made. Over 20% of young Haredi men now serve in the IDF and more and more young male and female Haredim are pursuing academic educations, though dropout rates are high. The percentage of Haredi women who work is now similar to the general population, a significant achievement, and they give birth at later ages, possibly presaging a future decline in the extraordinary Haredi fertility rates.

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In practice, however, the efforts to integrate the Haredim into Israeli society have failed woefully. The "tents of Torah" continue to be more attractive than IDF tents and nearly 80% of Haredi men continue to dodge military service, even though special units have been established for them, they serve for shorter periods of time and a significant part of their service is devoted to providing them with the skills they should have gained in school.

Moreover, only half of Haredi males work, a dramatic decrease since the 1970s, many in low-income jobs, and the result is a deeply impoverished population that lives at the expense of others, i.e. the secular majority. 

The integration approach has numerous other "accomplishments," such as, growing gender separation in the IDF, despite the special units established for the Haredim; new academic institutions established just for them and gender separation in the special programs for Haredim in the longstanding - and supposedly co-ed - institutions; separate rooms for Haredi employees in many places of employment; separate beaches, swimming pools and media; and in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, and in Bet Shemesh, even gender-segregated sidewalks. Disturbances have broken out on El Al planes when Haredi males were asked to sit next to women.

Proponents of "integration" continue to press their cause, nevertheless. 80% of the people, they argue, agree on 80% of the issues, and if we just exhibit further patience and tolerance, "integration" will succeed. It is, however, precisely the 20% that differentiates between an enlightened society and one that is not, and the differences they reflect must not be glossed over. 

What is happening in practice is in many ways contrary to what the well-meaning secular proponents of "integration" intended; every additional step towards "integration" requires a further compromise on the part of the secular population, one bit at a time, until the enlightened Israel sinks into darkness.

WALK THIS WAY: A gender-segregated sidewalk in Jerusalem last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Furthermore, it is unclear what precisely constitutes this "integration" that the secular majority is supposed to support. Do most secular Israelis want to live together with Haredim in the same neighborhoods? What the secular public sees are the precedents where the "integration" of any more than a minimal number of ultra-Orthodox families means systemic pressure on secular lifestyles and a process of an accelerating and coercive religiosity in the neighborhood's public square and on its allocation of resources.

 So, when it comes to living together, the secular majority is not interested.

What about going to school together? That is all the secular population needs, because they would rapidly turn into yeshivas.

So how about taking vacations and spending leisure time together, for example, joint trips to the tombs of rabbis in Uman, or "revivalist" meetings? No thanks. So, what yes?

Let’s at least be honest with ourselves. For most of the secular public, "integration" means that the Haredim finally serve in the IDF and go out to work, just like everyone else and no more. In other words, that they get off the backs of the secular public - the people who built Israel, turned it into the magnificent creation it is and continue to sustain and nourish it today - to allow everyone to live and even thrive.

In 2050, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi population will number approximately 3 million people, some 30% of the projected Jewish population, and over 4 million in 2060, about 35% of the Jewish population.

To put it simply, one out of every three Jews in Israel will be Haredi, compared to 15% today, and many others will belong to the national-religious community, which is composed of people of varying degrees of tolerance and enlightenment.

A protest against mandatory conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, Jerusalem, December 10, 2018.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Israel cannot bear the burden the Haredi community imposes on it for long, without economic ruin, no matter how much high-tech the secular population produces. Israel will also be unable to remain a vibrant democracy, if a substantial portion of its citizens view various rabbinical figures, as opposed to the state’s laws and values, as their primary locus of authority. 

Our young people will not wish to live here, if they have to support vast numbers of people who live at their expense, or to serve in the IDF, if they are asked to defend draft dodgers and an increasingly illiberal society. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, the core principles of its national security, is at stake.

In reality, Haredi society cannot continue to exist for long as presently constituted and, much like a glacier, will ultimately collapse of its own weight.

More and more young Haredim are fed up with the lives of poverty and intellectual privation, wish to merge into broader Israeli society, and appreciate the need to respect the secular majority’s lifestyle. Many find the current coercive practices of the Haredi community objectionable.

A democratic society based on discrimination and coercion, against the overwhelming majority, cannot long survive, and the secular majority certainly has no interest in helping the Haredi community do so. To the contrary. 

As a "radical centrist," who favors political moderation as a fundamental pillar of democratic discourse, and thus almost always favors evolutionary, not revolutionary change, the idea of "integration" is an attractive one, which I support in principle. The illusory "integration" that has been forced upon the secular majority by the Haredi parties, however, is another matter entirely.

A men-only concert at Jerusalem's International Convention Center on September 25, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

It would hardly be radical to note that Haredim work for their livelihoods all over the world, as a matter of course, since no one else will support them, and that when forced to do so in the past, they have even served in foreign armies, without specially constituted units for them.

The limited success in integrating Haredim into Israeli society achieved to date, is a result of the secular population’s steadfast defense of a last few remaining democratic principles, not of further compromise, which ends up constituting a surrender of democratic values. 

Support for true "integration" is not a matter of secular coercion. It is called respect for the values of democracy and the rule of law and reflects the will of the overwhelming majority of the people. Time is present. If things do not change rapidly, by 2050 Israel will have become a poor and illiberal society. 

With the political map changing daily before our eyes, there is an opportunity for change following the upcoming elections – still no more than an opportunity – and for the establishment of a secular coalition, or at least a more moderate one.

So, go forth and take the polling stations by storm. It is not a matter of war or peace, but of war or integration. A political and cultural battle for the future character of the Jewish state and its values, in the face of the specious rhetoric that has won over the minds of so many, for so long.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, April 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck

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