A State of All Its Religious Citizens

There is a straight line that runs from a religious majority in Israeli kindergartens to a nationalist and religious state.

The ultra-Orthodox website "Kikar Hashabat" has announced that "2012 will be a landmark year, insofar as the religious-Haredi character of Israeli society is concerned." The website quotes Deputy Education Minister Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism ), who revealed several weeks ago that this year will mark the first time Haredi and other religious children make up more than 50 percent of Israeli preschoolers. "We are going to be 52 percent, whereas they (the secular ) will only be 48 percent," Moses said. The deputy minister's "they" refers of course to those Israelis "who have forgotten what it means to be Jewish" (as per Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's revealing phrase, caught on camera in 1997 ) - namely leftists, secularists.

Fifteen years ago, according to Moses, Haredi children made up only 12.6 percent of pupils in Israeli schools. "Today we are 32 percent. The religious Zionists, including Chabad, make another 20 percent. Some argue whether Chabad students are seven percent or six percent, but that does not matter," he said. Indeed it doesn't: Thou hast a kippa, be thou our ruler. Which reminds us that the army is likewise becoming increasingly more religious. In 18 years' time, the Torah-studying tots of today will make up at least one-half of those marching in military ceremonies.

Moses' words are not wishful thinking. This week, the Central Bureau of Statistics published a similar projection. According to its estimate, within five years, pupils in the Haredi and religious Zionist education systems will make up 32 percent of the total number of pupils, while pupils in the state secular system will constitute merely 41 percent, and 26 percent will be Arabs. There is no need to quibble over the minor numerical discrepancy between Moses' data and the Central Bureau's statistics; according to both projections, secular Israel is being swamped.

A state that defines itself as Jewish need not cringe in the face of this forecast. Religious, even Haredi, education is, after all, an inseparable part of Israel's self-definition. It is the persistence of secularism in a Jewish state that should occasion bewilderment. Moreover, the fact that the secular in this state have managed, until now, to maintain a majority should be viewed either as an anomaly or a miracle.

There is no theoretical contradiction that prevents a religious person from holding liberal principles. Religious tolerance is itself part and parcel of these principles. What a true democracy does not tolerate is the oppression of a minority by a tyrannical majority, be it secular or religious. The threat implied by the statistics is that a tyrannical religious majority is about to become the dominant force in Israeli democracy. When that 52 percent (comprising Haredi, religious Zionist and Chabadnik preschoolers ) becomes an adult, voting majority, we will witness the disappearance of the balanced system of appointments to the Supreme Court and the lower courts. School textbooks will be "reformed." The separation of girls from boys, in schools and buses, will no longer make it to the High Court of Justice. And a giant kippa will cast its shadow over the formerly free radio and television broadcasts.

The darkness will thicken not because more people will start attending synagogues, nor because students will begin scribbling the Hebrew acronym for "with the help of heaven" on the top of every exam; nor still because government employees will turn the religious fasts of Gedalia and Tisha B'Av into mandatory (rather than elective ) holidays. The primary danger - one whose signs we can already see today - lies in the destructive combination of religion and nationalism.

Who can tell any longer whether the harassment of Palestinian farmers, the so-called "price tag" (Jewish terrorist ) attacks, or the tossing of Molotov cocktails at Palestinian vehicles is motivated by nationalist or religious sentiments? If it turns out that those 12- and 14-year-old children did indeed throw the Molotov cocktail that wounded six people, then they did what they did "in the service" of both God and country.

There is a straight line that runs from a religious majority in Israeli kindergartens to a nationalist and religious state. To hope that the government of such a state will allow the secular minority to live by its own lights is an illusion.