Fear runs rife in Israeli society regarding what has been previously labelled as the “demographic time bomb”, painting a scenario whereby the Israeli-Jews will be outnumbered by non-Jews inside Israel Proper (Israel minus the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) within our current lifetime. For any person, the demise and death of one’s own culture is difficult, and one can only have sympathy towards the plight of the now majority of Jews (just under 70%) who were in fact born in their country of Israel, and who foresee the slow demise of their cultural identity.
The changing demographics of Israel are considered a threat by some and a celebratory affair by others. The facts stand as this: Jews make up just over seventy-five percent of the population, with a little under one quarter of the population being non-Jewish (mostly Arab). The population expansion for the country as a whole is roughly 1.7%, with the growth rate of the Israeli-Arabs at 2.8%.
The threat to the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ is often bandied about by politicians, often to give rise to sometimes racist legislation and laws. However, far fewer seem brave enough to counter the threat to its future as a ‘Democratic State’. They label themselves as a Democratic and Jewish State, yet seem almost content to allow the destruction of the more important of the two: its democratic nature.
The Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews currently number around 700,000 inside Israel, encompassing nearly ten percent of the total population of Israel proper. Their birth rate is far higher, at an estimated six percent increase per year, effectively doubling every fifteen years.
If all groups (Secular, non-Jew, and Haredi) stay on their current growth rates, then in twenty-five years time (2037) the population of Israel would be nearly double that of today’s, standing at 12.5 million people. Of those, rough 50% would be secular Jews, 27% would be non-Jew, but an astounding 23% would be Haredi. Fast forwards another 25 years to the 2062, and these numbers will shift dramatically to 27% secular, 25% non-Jew, and 48% Haredi.
Of course these numbers are simple projections calculated myself (using the growth rates 0.73% for Secular, 6% Haredim, and 2.8% for non-Jew, giving an overall of 1.7% growth) and this does not factor-in that there is not another mass-influx of Jewish refugees, or a mass-conversion to or from the way of the ultra-Orthodox, and that no existential war involving Israel and its neighbours takes place.
Even in their simplified calculation, they clearly show the path ahead should none-of-the-above take place, and what will happen if there is not a dramatic social drive to counter the rise of the ultra-Orthodox, or another mass-migration of Jews from other countries. The longer term projections will of course be way off, due to future social, economic, and military pressure, but they show that these future pressures are essential in order to avoid the burgeoning catastrophe of a majority Haredi population.
If these pressures do not arise socially, religiously, or politically, only another existential-threatening war involving Israel and her neighbours will change the balance of the demographics once again, and not necessarily for the benefit of the current majority-secular Jew.
Some of course would argue that the rise of the religious right is not a threat, but after a period of cooled off tensions, issues are surfacing and rearing their ugly head once more. The Israeli Defence Force, the Army in particular, is a prime example, after the increased integration of the Haredi into the IDF in the late nineties and the early 2000’s, and the recent rapid expansion of the Haredi population in the army.
The problem arises because the army is not too compatible with the ultra-Orthodox way of life, whereby they require strictly kosher meals and rations, they do not wish to be instructed by women, and they need continuous time-off for prayer and study. These requirements, particularly regarding women, are not conducive to a modern army who preaches equality, and who due to the large number of military ‘Rabbis’, does rather too much preaching.
Whilst some credence can be given to the argument that the army moulds men and women to its standard, and not the other way around, and in its ‘melting pot’ the army will create a new wave of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have become institutionalised to the way and thinking of the army, it is becoming clear that this is not what is happening.
Commanders have recently admitted that due to the vague nature of IDF regulations in regards to religious problems, they have been fearful of confronting soldiers (and their Rabbis) on these issues on the ground. Due to the General Staff relying heavily on the judgement of the Officer in the field, where these matters commonly arise, many commanders simply give way to religion simply to avoid the trouble.
Religious soldiers have also recently complained about being instructed by female staff in shooting, artillery, and various other activities. In December, a soldier refused to parachute from the plane because the instructor was a woman, and the minimum required touch of a pat on the soldier’s parachute pack was too much for the young man to bear. Unfortunately, under military regulations, a religious soldier is allowed to request a male instructor.
With greater participation in the army growing for the religious, the fact that seventy percent of a recent Officer’s Course was made up of ultra-Orthodox is exceedingly worrying, especially in light of the fact that Israeli society is fairly militarized, due to their compulsory national service. Having more and more of the upper echelons of the Israeli Defence Force steadily become ultra-Orthodox, will surely reverberate around Israeli society as a whole, and threaten the very foundation of a Jewish and Democratic State.
A greater population of the religious Jew will seep into the Israeli Knesset, cause greater social friction, expand illegal-settlement projects, and will only serve to make the peace process that much more difficult. People truly concerned for the future of Israel should stop fretting about the ‘threat’ of the Israeli-Arabs to the characterisation of Israel as a Jewish State, when the Haredim will curtail this, whilst simultaneously eroding Israel’s greater strength: its democracy.