Opinion

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Are Playing With Fire

The Haredim's weight on the state treasury will intensify until taxpayers revolt and rise up against their oppressors

FILE PHOTO: Council of 'sages' belonging to ultra-Orthodox party head to a meeting to discus a political appointment
Olivier Fitoussi

The ultra-Orthodox parties’ euphoria following their success in last month’s election is a matter of playing with fire. The heads of United Torah Judaism and Shas are zeroing in on the weakness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will now give them the moon and the stars in return for immunity and rescue from the law and loss of power. But if the wind ever changes and Israel faces a serious economic or security crisis, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) will be the most comfortable target for denial of rights, budget cuts and threats to their separatist way of life.

The Haredim are unable, nor do they really try, to explain to the secular population why the latter must finance a minority that rejects core academic studies and military service, and prefers to live off allowances and transfer payments. The simple answer to this question is that they can. Because their political alliance with the Likud has kept the right in power for 42 years, and their high birthrate and voter turnout have translated into political influence. The two top deciles, most of which vote for the center and left, pay 92 percent of the income tax in Israel, but are in an inferior position in the Knesset.

This is all well and good so long as the skies are clear, the security situation is relatively calm and most of the public views the economy as flourishing. But what will happen when the skies darken? Who will be the scapegoats then? The Haredim look like the easiest targets. Their growing numbers – they have one-fifth of the children today, and will have half of the children in 2065, according to demographic projections – will intensify the burden on the state treasury so much that one day taxpayers will simply revolt and rise up against their oppressors.

The new study by Prof. Dan Ben-David from the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research ought to shock any Israeli who wants to continue living here. Long before 2065, those paying the bill will face a choice: emigrate or rebel. Ben-David explains that the accepted response, that there are changes taking place in Haredi society and that thousands of them are eager to pursue academic studies, is nonsense. Anyone who hasn’t learned languages and math as a child will have a very hard time bridging the gap at age 20. Israel is raising an entire generation of uneducated ignoramuses who submit to rabbis’ orders. There is no clearer recipe for economic and social suicide.

When domestic tranquility will be undermined by an economic collapse or too many soldiers’ funerals, some secular populist will rise up and be carried into power on a wave of anti-Haredi hatred. This hatred is latent most of the time, and until now has resulted at best in tactical electoral victories, by Shulamit Aloni’s Meretz (1992), Tommy Lapid’s Shinui (2003) and his son Yair’s Yesh Atid (2013). But when the burden increases, and the coffers empty, a more charismatic politician than Lapid is liable to persuade the public that the solution to its distress is to violently suppress the Haredim, throw draft-dodgers into prison and use armed soldiers to impose the study of core subjects.

Most of the dystopian scenarios written about Israel expect the religious to defeat the secular in the historic conflict that began with the dawn of Zionism. But reality could unfold in just the opposite way: The weapons and money are found mostly on the secular side, and at the moment of truth, the national religious who serve in the army and pay taxes will betray the Haredim.

It would behoove Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery to take into account this threat to their community’s future when they make even more demands of Netanyahu.