Israelis, Don't Panic Over Demographics

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of a Mount Meron fatality, two months ago.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Not that I’m counting, but according to Akiva Novick’s excellent essay that appeared in Hebrew Haaretz on Sunday, his grandmother, may she live and be well, has 217 descendants as of this writing. He counted them to prove that this is “The last-chance government of Israel’s liberal camp,” because “the overwhelming majority” of Grandma Novick’s descendants will probably “continue to vote for conservative parties – the heirs of Likud, Bezalel Smotrich and the ultra-Orthodox.”

I don’t know Novick’s large family, so I will continue from here with mathematical calculations of a different Israeli family that’s entirely theoretical. For a few years now, the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Pew Institute have been examining in their surveys the level of religiosity of those questioned compared to the religious level of the home in which they grew up. Until now, despite many studies that have been trying to refute these results, it seems that 40 percent of those who grew up in religious homes are likely to become traditional or secular during their lifetimes. In other words, around 85 of the 217 members of this theoretical religious family are likely to leave the religious lifestyle they grew up with.

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What does this trend toward secularization portend for their future political opinions in the Israel of 2035? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps a lot. And that’s the point. True, in Israel there are relatively clear demographic trends. According to some forecasts, in 50 years the Haredim will constitute 30 percent of Israel’s population. And indeed, the trend toward secularization in the Haredi community is not the same as among those who wear knitted skullcaps. It’s also clear that many people who leave religious observance remain politically right-wing. But statistics is the deterministic art of prediction, and it doesn’t take into account the human spirit. How do I know? Because I’m one of those 40 percent who chose differently.

Global secularization is a phenomenon with a lot that’s hidden. Jose Casanova, a top scholar in the sociology of religion, noticed back in the 1990s that there were problems with the liberal paradigm that definitively linked modernity with secularism. Although the world is ostensibly marching in the direction of rationality and science, on the individual, social and political levels, religions as institutions are not weakening, but are influencing our modern lives. In some places, this influence is even increasing. That is, progress has not eliminated faith. On the other hand, with all the wailing about the end of liberalism and democracy, the world is still more secular, liberal and democratic than it has ever been. Even if we take a few steps back, the general direction is still forward.

Secular-leftist Haaretz readers who read Novick’s piece and concluded from his demographic forecast that their descendants will have no place in a future Israel may think they can do nothing but despair. According to this forecast, they will be a persecuted minority forever. But I’m not despairing, because I know from experience that there is not necessarily a binding correlation between education, religion and political positions. Novick himself fundamentally agrees with me, because his solution includes obligating the Haredim to study math and English. And what is faith in education if not faith in the spirit of man?

In science, they talk about the influence of “nature vs. nurture,” and in the religious community in which Novick and I grew up they say, “Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is granted.” Both refer to the human paradox, in which despite both nature and fate, at its core the human spirit is free and surprising. There’s a point at which determinism and statistics end and the mystery begins. And one need look no further than to one Naftali Bennett, the religious grandson of some grandmother, who this week is forming a government of change.

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