In my last column I wrote about the need for Israel to focus on its Haredi, Arab and ultra-nationalist population bomb, a bomb that threatens Israel’s economy as well as its internal and external Jewish support: “(Unfortunately, many American Jews) see a Jewish state, yet they recognize their Judaism much more within America’s borders than within Israel’s. Considering Israel’s current demographic trends, this feeling is unlikely to change absent significant internal changes within Israel. Struggles over terrorism, loyalty oaths, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) defining who is a Jew, Israeli Arab housing and education deficiencies, separation barriers, government subsidies to the Haredi, lack of a skilled Haredi work force, and Arab and Haredi exemptions from serving in the military, will likely grow worse and expand to even other issues as Israel becomes less secular and less democratic.
Is it too apocalyptic to suggest that a country with an increasing mix of religious, but non-working and/or less skilled citizens depending on a disproportionate amount of government subsidies, combined with another group that is stridently nationalistic and wants a “purer” Israel, preferably devoid of Arabs, with more land for Jews, combined with Israeli Arab citizens that have lived better than their Palestinian brethren, but who are not attached to the concept of Israel as a Jewish state, and that in many ways live in a society that supports official and unofficial discrimination against them, is not a very stable (or supportable) mix?”
It’s not too late. Yet. But, in order to ensure a stable economy and society as well as consistent and long-term Jewish support, Israel must implement the internal reforms necessary to prevent its demographic time bomb from exploding.
NEUTRALIZING THE HAREDI BOMB IS THE KEY STEP
David Ben-Gurion’s great bargain has become Israel’s great burden. It is a burden that threatens Israel’s survival as the type of Jewish state that Ben-Gurion and other original Zionists imagined.
During the 1940’s, Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, joined with many of Israel’s other secular Zionist founders in deciding that they needed the “ultra-Orthodox” Haredi leaders on the Zionist team. The Haredim, it was felt, would be critical in assisting the “grand Zionist experiment” in passing its difficult opening act. It is hard enough, after all, to debut in a hail of bombs and bullets. If you also have to include anti-Zionist Jewish cast members that view secular Zionists as heretics, and doubt their own country’s legitimacy, it would be hard to get much past opening night and a world full of critics.
To secure “ultra-Orthodox” support, Ben-Gurion made a political deal. The Haredim, “guardians of authentic Judaism,” would embrace Israel’s founding, despite their misgivings that a largely secular Israeli society would negatively impact the Jewish people’s faith in the coming of the future Messiah. In return, Haredi leaders would receive a significant (and now dangerous) Messiah preemption concession: The rabbinate would gain control over marriage, divorce and almost all related family law. Yeshiva students would get a military service exemption. And the Haredim, a tiny percentage of Israel’s original population, and a group that some, including Israeli journalist Yossi Sarid, have referred to as the “Jewish Taliban,” would now have a power base to enforce their fundamentalist views on Israeli, and world Jewry.
What Israel’s founding Zionist fathers never imagined (or at least decided to put off imagining) was that the ancient belief system and insular ways of the Haredim could avoid eventual co-option by the allure of a modern successful Jewish society. The idea that the Haredi interpretation of halachah, Jewish religious law, would be embedded in Israeli society, instead of excised from it, was not considered.
Fast forward to 2010.
It’s Israel itself that is actually in the process of being co-opted by both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Mizrachi Haredi. Israel’s truly whacky coalition governing system — win as little as 2% of the vote and you, too, can participate — allows them to have influence far beyond their numbers (8% to 10% of the population) and certainly well beyond their low popular support both inside and outside of Israel.
Where the Haredi, particularly the Sephardic Haredim, are likely to lead is in the “most likely to give a platform to those who seek to delegitimize Israel” vote. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, their Shas Party’s spiritual leader, has interpreted halachah to mandate that Jews not sell property to Arabs, and that judges not participate in minyans. (Yosef isn’t a secular judge fan. He supports his own religious interpretations over judge-interpreted laws. And it’s not because he’s watched too much “Court TV” or read about too many activist judges. Haredim aren’t big fans of modernity. That might lead to losing their community control. So television, newspapers and the internet don’t typically make their shopping lists.)
Yosef even recently said that his interpretation of halachah is that an Arab’s only purpose is to serve Jews. He also wished death upon Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority. (While most of Israel’s political leaders, as well as American Jewish organizations like AIPAC, ADL, AJC and J Street, condemned Yosef’s remarks, the Haredi-supported Shas Party did not. Shas remains a major Netanyahu coalition party member, and also remains a key player in poisoning Israeli politics and the view of Israel throughout the world.)
The “ultra-Orthodox” are also unique in that they are consistently on the opposite side of the Israeli majority, yet are able to maintain their coalition toehold: Haredim strongly support the settlements in all areas of the West Bank; they see Jews as the entitled landowners. Yet, which Jews are entitled is not always clear, as they seek to define “real Jews” in such a restrictive manner that qualifying for their club can be very difficult (and off-putting to Diaspora Jewry).
And they don’t support a two state solution or having to work. Studying Torah, or “pray for pay,” is their state supported “occupation.” Over 60% of Haredim don’t work and are forced to have their needs met by charity and state subsidies.
Haredi schooling is also based on the principle of separate and unequal, at least in terms of their unwillingness to teach core required subjects, like math and science, or to treat educating girls the same as educating boys. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Haredi Jews have also received different educational opportunities. But at least Haredim do come close to leading Israel society in one key metric: their poverty rate. The “ultra-Orthodox,” half of whom exist below the poverty line, trail only the Arab sector.
Where Haredi do lead, and this is what poses a growing danger to Israel, is in their birth rate and their relative youthfulness, compared to the rest of Israeli society. An average Haredi family has seven to eight (heavily state-supported) children compared to slightly under four (less heavily state-supported) children for Arab families, and slightly under three (much less state-supported) children in non-Haredi Jewish families. By 2020, several demographers suggest that Haredim will increase to 15% of the population. Combined with the roughly 15% of Israel society who are now considered “ultra nationalists” — largely immigrants from Russia — and the 20% (likely to be 25% by 2025) Arab sector, Israel is left with a strangely antagonistic mix of citizens.
Haredim don’t believe that many of the ultra-nationalists qualify as Jews according to halacha. To the great disappointment of the Haredim, while many of the ultra-nationalists resent this, even more appear not to care. While the ultra-nationalists’ “non-Jewish” status affects various aspects of their social life, a large portion of this group is more focused on working to transfer different segments of the the Arab population outside Israel or at least preventing them from enjoying equal rights and privileges. Haredim keenly love playing this game, too.
The Arab sector, in turn, grows increasingly frustrated by their marginalization — no Arab party has ever participated in the government — and by the de facto and de jure discrimination they suffer. They see themselves as legitimate citizens entitled to enjoy at least the same rights as the relatively newcomer ultra-nationalists and the Haredim, who they feel don’t contribute as much to the non-spiritual economy as they do. Arabs reject the “fifth column” label that many of the ultra-nationalists have applied, and say they have proven to be loyal citizens.
What can be done?
The single most important change that needs to happen, for Israel’s internal social, economic and political good, as well as to ensure continued strong external American government and American Jewish support, is on Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Tzipi Livni’s shoulders. These two leaders need to bring their Kadima and Likud parties together in a new coalition government that, along with the moderate Labor Party, would allow Netanyahu to drop the corrosive and stifling influence of four current coalition members: the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and the ultra-religious Shas, United Torah, and The Jewish Home parties. (While “ultra-nationalist” and “ultra-religious” may be pejorative terms, they seem to best describe the exclusivist platforms of these parties.)
This one change would free up a new coalition government to make the types of far-sighted changes Israel needs.
The new coalition government will have the leverage to work with Haredi leadership to require and enforce a core educational curricula that includes math and science. This will make it easier for Haredim to succeed in the economy and easier for the government to gradually eliminate subsidies. The government will also be better positioned to enforce the same military service requirements that are now, with the exception of Arab Israelis, imposed on the rest of Israeli society. Perhaps some Haredi can be given alternate ways to fulfill their military service. But, what is important for every Haredi Israeli to understand is that the obligations the state has to, in this case its “ultra-Orthodox” citizens, must be married to the obligations its “ultra-Orthodox” citizens have to the state. At present, the balance too heavily tilts the state in the Haredi direction.
Ben-Gurion’s original bargain with Haredi leadership does not mean it must continue in perpetuity. Israel is 62 years, six major conflicts and two Palestinian uprisings later. And as Israel continues to face an Iranian existential threat, it can’t afford to allow an internal one that also has serious external ramifications for Diaspora Jewry. That means that Israel must also reduce the Haredi role over civil issues such as marriage, divorce and burial, which ties in with eliminating their ability to define “who is a Jew.” These changes can be negotiated in the context of negotiating over Haredi financial subsidies, educational changes and compulsory military service, but the process must begin now.
A true coalition government would also be able to more easily take steps to improve funding for the Arab sector and work toward eliminating the direct and indirect discrimination encouraged by the ultra-nationalists and some religious parties and perpetuated by the current Israeli political, economic and religious structure. A coalition government should also dialogue with key Arab leaders about the value, especially as conditions improve in the region, of eventually requiring some type of military service commitment for Arab citizens. So many business-related connections are now tied, at least indirectly, into military service, that the absence of a requirement can operate as an impediment to economic advancement.
As these changes occur, and as a coalition government more easily navigates a path toward an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel’s Arab population will become more productive and more able to proudly identify themselves as Israeli citizens, rather than as Arab Israelis or Palestinians.
Make no mistake. Change is tough. Livni and Netanyahu will each have to make concessions. But while their journey will be fraught with serious twists and turns and self-doubts, reaching a decision to unite in a coalition government and travel down a path toward implementing the necessary societal changes, will ultimately lead to the right destination for Israel and all of its internal and external supporters.