Beyond Benjamin Netanyahu and geopolitical tensions, one issue perenially preoccupying Israeli voters and politicians alike is religion and state. Civil marriage, buses running and stores opening on Shabbat and conversion are indeed worthy issues, but the reality is that they are nothing but rearguard actions in a struggle that the Haredim seem destined to win just by sheer numbers.
The Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that the ultra-Orthodox share of Israel’s population will grow from about 10% today to nearly 20% in 2040 and 33% in 2065. And that’s its mid-range estimate. The CBS adds that the Haredi share could reach more than 21% in 2040 and 36.5% in 2065.
That is worrying news because Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are spectacularly uneducated in terms of the core math and science people need to work in a modern workforce. Their schools teach as little as possible of the core curriculum, thus consigning their children to a life of unemployment or underemployment, poverty and financial dependency on the state. They could potentially gain the education and skills to work in high-tech, but presently they are unqualified for menial, low-paying jobs.
Unless that changes, they will become an unsustainable burden on the productive part of the economy and could even pose a threat to national security: As Prof. Dan Ben-David, the Tel Aviv University economist, notes in a report released this week: “Being situated in one of the planet’s most dangerous regions, Israel requires a first world army to simply continue to exist. Maintaining a first world army requires a first world economy.”
Optimists have assumed that the Haredi “Society of Learners,” where the ideal for adult males is to spend their days in the beit midrash pouring over Gemara, will collapse under the weight of its unworkable economics. Parents will recognize they need to educate their children to escape even deeper poverty than they live in now; others will simply leave the ultra-Orthodox world.
Those assumptions, however, don’t stand up to the data, as Ben-David demonstrates.
The good news for secular Israelis who feel that their lifestyle and values are under siege from rabbis is that the secular rate of attrition is quite low. Ninety percent of children from secular families remain so in adult life and the great majority of those who become more religious go for the mild form of “traditional” observance.
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But that’s where the good news ends. As Ben-David shows, among the ultra-Orthodox, the retention rate is an even higher 94%. That should come as no big surprise because the rabbis work mightily to keep their followers isolated from the outside world. It takes a great deal of courage to set out into the non-Haredi world without any useful education or experience.
On the surface, the low attrition rates for the secular and Haredi sectors point to balanced demographics going forward -- except that the birth rate for secular Jews is about 2.2 per woman, just a hair’s breadth above replacement level, while the rate for Haredi women is 7.1, according to Ben-David.
In other words, Israel is on its way to becoming a country dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. In the CBS’ high estimate for population growth, by 2065 non-Haredi Jews will constitute just 45% of the population, outnumbered by the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, another community still characterized by high unemployment and poverty rates.
Prof. Ben-David doesn’t address the politics of the growing Haredi minority, only the dismal economics. But the two go hand in hand.
It may yet happen that the growing economic pressures on the Haredi world become so crushing that more young people pursue a secular education side-by-side with their religious studies. But the ultra-Orthodox political parties have remained determined to block any attempt to bring their community into the 21st century or contribute their fair share to Israeli society, whether by being gainfully employed, paying taxes or serving in the army.
Being just 10% of the population, they have been putting up a good fight; at 15% and 20% they will be undefeatable.
Thus the rest of Israel has to do battle now while it still stand a chance of winning. One way to start is a "broad liberal unity government” government of the kind Avigdor Lieberman is calling for. What that means is a coalition without the Haredi parties because that is a sine qua non for (and let’s not be delicate here) forcing change on the Haredi world.
Its agenda could include Shabbat buses and more liberal conversion rules, but the real work of this government is to create a mechanism of financial sticks and carrots that will compel the Haredi world to overhaul its schools, let men serve in the army and take jobs without facing censure from the community, and wean them off the state’s largesse.
There’s a precedent for these kinds of measures working. More ultra-Orthodox began entering the workforce and pursuing a higher education when the government cut allowances to the Haredi community and offered them educational incentives. They were often half-hearted, but many of them quickly reversed after 2015 when Netanyahu formed a new government with Haredi parties and all the progress ground to a halt.
Quite simply, time is running out to shape the character of Israel, perhaps even its ability to survive.