Tuesday’s results in the election for the 25th Knesset left many in Israel and abroad wondering what is going on here. Looking at the results, you will see immense gains by Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). These parties, coupled with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, will likely form the next government.
Many in the United States and in Europe sounded alarms in the lead-up to the election, issuing thinly veiled threats of not willing to work with a possible new right-wing government. Moreover, constituencies in Israel saw the potential of a right-wing government with religious and religious Zionist parties as an existential threat to Israeli democracy and its standing on the world stage. I believe many of these claims, whether true or not, ignore the inevitable: Israel’s population is growing in its nationalist and religious leanings.
Modern Israel was led by the Mapai, the party of Ben-Gurion, one that was openly socialist in its policies and identity. Part of this ideology was the suppression of outwardly Jewish expressions in public spaces, save for holidays and Shabbat. As Aliyah numbers grew following the 6-Day War, a new wave of fervor accompanied the new Israelis. With it came a shift in the ideological makeup of the country.
Menachem Begin was Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, coming to power in 1977. Since then, Israel has been primarily led by right-wing or right-leaning politicians and parties. This was reflected in the population as it grew more and more nationalist and religious. Of course, this was coupled with much higher birth rates in more observant communities, where it would not be surprising to find families with six or more children. As these children grew, so changed the demographic makeup of the country.
A simple dive into the current demographic breakdown of Israel will show that the left-wing leanings of Israel’s founders are completely out of style with today’s Israelis. Not only is this demonstrated in elections, with formerly dominant parties such as Labor and Meretz either barely reaching the electoral threshold or missing it altogether, but it is evident in Israeli society. Today, more than 60% of officers in the IDF wear kippot and identity as religious. These officers are leaving service and taking on roles in government, hi-tech, academia and medicine. In general, these people are voting for more right-wing parties.
By far the fastest-growing population segment in Israel today is the Haredim. With the highest birth rates in the country, they are on pace to become a majority in the country within the next half-century. As they grow and continue on their path to integration, as has been happening in the past decade, they will also find themselves in roles in government, hi-tech, academia and medicine. Haredim, of course, voted for Shas or UTJ.
These two groups, combined with an already nationalist and traditional Israeli population, have largely silenced the left-wing parties in Israel today. In fact, if they joined together they would have the largest mandate. Understanding these demographic trends, it should be no surprise at all that the religious parties saw large gains in the election. Indeed, if it weren’t in this election, it would be in the next one.
Alarms are already being rung throughout Israel and the West regarding the impending government dangers. In reality, fears of overturning the Judiciary and the Courts, stripping of rights and general oppression will likely be overblown. So the sectors of Israeli society that find themselves on the periphery of the election results are now faced with a reality where their worldview is being completely sidestepped by a majority of Israelis. A daunting reality to face, it is incumbent on these people to work to find a common ground within the new reality to forge a path that combines the best of their worldview with the best of the majority’s worldview. I am not sure there is any other option.
Of course, I do not believe that Israel is doomed to fall into the abyss many are predicting. Despite the fears, Israel is still a thriving, open and free society, with a wealth of knowledge and expertise across fields.
Moreover, traditional Jewish thought abhors an Iranian-style theocracy, as others fear. Recognizing that this current reality was inevitable allows clear thinking to see that a positive future is possible despite any perceived short-term pitfalls.
The writer, a Jerusalem Post staff member, is an entrepreneur and Hebrew thinker, known as Osher in Hebrew. A recent Oleh, he also helps oversee the start-up ecosystem in Jerusalem with Made in JLM. On Twitter: @troyfritzhand.