Despite the dire warnings of traffic jams and accidents on all the roads throughout Israel, we decided to take advantage of a lull in our various activities and go to take in a movie (Philomena) in town. This involves a half-hour drive from our home just outside Jerusalem into the heart of the new city, the German Colony. This is an area, originally on the outskirts of the city but today pretty central, which was built by Germans, members of a Christian sect known as Templers in the middle of the nineteenth century. The original inhabitants of the old houses and tree-lined streets have long since left the country (some of them were deported by the British Mandate authorities during the Second World War, while others–including relatives of mine—were exchanged for concentration-camp inmates).
The spring-like weather was enticing, but we resisted the temptation to indulge in a picnic in one of the parks in the Jerusalem area. It is at times like these that families and groups of youngsters go out into nature to barbecue meat, engage in rowdy games and turn their radios and karaoke equipment up to full volume.
As we made our way into town we were able to see ultra-orthodox families with a string of children of all ages and sizes walking towards the parks and museums that are to be found in the Givat Ram area which houses the Knesset, the Hebrew University campus, government buildings and our own ‘Museum Mile’ (the Israel Museum, Bible Lands Museum, Science Museum) and will one day be the site of the new National Library.
The families, all dressed in their best clothes (black trousers and white shirts for the men and boys, dresses and knee-length socks or stockings for the women and girls), were out in force. Some of the men wore fur hats, denoting their membership of one Chassidic sect or another, and of course all the married women were at pains to cover their hair. It has been suggested to me that this is to prevent them catching headlice from their children, but it is in fact an ancient religious proscription, harking back to the days when it was considered unseemly for a woman to display her hair. This was once common to most of the Western world but has since died out, although Queen Elizabeth still always appears in public with a hat of some kind or another (or a crown).
As we espied more and more of these families I began to wonder about what lies ahead for Israel. Most of the people we saw will perpetuate the ultra-orthodox way of life, producing ever more children in a geometric progression. Most of those children will not serve in the army, will not work will not pay taxes and will benefit from Israel’s welfare society. If that trend continues, the burden of defending Israel and supporting its workforce will fall on the country’s shrinking secular population. Eventually a time will come when Israel will no longer be a viable country, and will either implode or be conquered by whomever is the strongest entity at the time.
It certainly is a depressing prospect, and it is this, it seems, that lies behind the efforts of the current government – flawed as it is – to change the situation by obliging ultra-orthodox young men to serve in the army or undertake communal service, as well as to encourage them to gain sufficient general education to enable them to obtain useful employment. Whether this endeavour succeeds or not depends to a great extent on the political state of affairs, and the preservation of the current coalition which excludes the ultra-orthodox from the cabinet. One can only hope that given the pressures now being brought to bear on the government from various quarters, those at the helm will find the strength to keep the ship of state afloat.