Think About It: Government by rabbis

The truth is that no one knows what the Israeli society will really look like if and when the haredim turn into a majority.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In recent months, apparently in an attempt to increase ratings, Channel 10 has started to broadcast three- to four-chapter mini-series on current issues in its daily news broadcasts in prime time. The topics chosen are all provocative, and while I am not sure whether they have increased the channel’s ratings, they have certainly created a buzz.
One of the reasons for this is that the producers of these series are all extremely talented and diversified reporters.
One of these reporters is the rather enigmatic Avishai Ben-Haim – the channel’s reporter on haredi (ultra-Orthodox) affairs. From the look of him, it is not easy to place Ben-Haim. He has long hair, which he gathers in a ponytail, and he usually wears what looks like a black knitted skullcap, though it is not clear whether he himself comes from a religious background, and if so, of what sort.
The author of a book on The Haredi Ideology According to Rabbi Shach, and currently working on his doctorate in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, Ben-Haim is undoubtedly highly knowledgeable about all the nuances of haredi thought and life, and at the same time approaches every topic on which he reports with the enthusiasm of a child.
(Incidentally, Ben-Haim is a reserve Lieutenant Colonel in a paratrooper unit, and is extremely skeptical about the prospect of hard-core haredi youths ever enlisting in the IDF in significant numbers.) The mini-series produced by Ben-Haim, which was broadcast on Channel 10 last week, was entitled “Shilton Harav” (“Government by Rabbis” in free translation), and deals with the question of what will happen if and when the haredim in Israel turn into a majority.
Ben-Haim provided a vast quantity of information on the issue, mostly in the form of short interviews, which he crammed into three programs of 12 to 14 minutes each (all available on YouTube), and since he does not express his own opinion about the likelihood of the haredim eventually turning into a majority, or the implications of such a development, we are left to reach our own conclusions.
The reactions of the public have been everywhere from “be’ezrat hashem!” (with the Help of God) to sheer panic.
The truth is that no one knows what the Israeli society will really look like if and when the haredim turn into a majority. It is difficult to imagine a society in which the majority prefers to study at yeshivot rather than work, refuses to acquire a general secular education, refuses to do military service, and is totally dependent on the non-haredi minority (made up of secular and national religious Jews, Arabs and foreign workers) to provide all the services and perform all the functions required for the running of a modern state – particular one that confronts a constant existential problem on the security level.
My guess is that if and when the haredim turn into a majority, haredi society will change beyond recognition from what it is today. The phenomenon of “modern haredim” – i.e. haredim who have acquired a higher non-religious education, and are gainfully employed – will undoubtedly expand in coming years. At the same time, and parallel with such a development, we might possibly also see the strengthening of the more fanatical branch of the haredi community, characterized by total lack of tolerance for anyone less fanatic than itself, not to mention those who are secular or non-Jewish.
The phenomenon of “hardalim” (national religious haredim) might also spread beyond its current dimensions.
Side by side with all these developments we should not forget that the current mainstream haredi society is divided into splinters, and is unlikely to unite, even if some charismatic religious leader pops up from somewhere – and at the moment no such leader is in sight. So what sort of majority are we talking about? Even without a clear perception of what a society in which the haredim are a majority will look like, most seculars are petrified at the thought, imagining that in such a society the strictest religious norms, and the halacha, will be forcefully applied, totally obliterating any remnant of the modern western liberal society. The majority of seculars would certainly choose to leave the country under such circumstances.
The reaction of the national religious and the Arabs is less clear. The national religious camp competes with the haredim for control over the country’s religious institutions, and also has issues with the haredim over Zionism and Eretz Yisrael. However, it has no problem with Israel turning into a halachic state.
The Arabs, on the other hand, are ambivalent, since the current status quo isn’t exactly what they want, and it is not clear what impact a state with a haredi majority would have on them.
Personally, though I do not deny that the haredim might turn into a majority in the distant future, what with their high birth rates and despite the fact that not everyone born a haredi remains one, I believe that from the perspective of a liberal secular person there are two phenomena concerning the demographic balance in Israel that will occur much before the haredim turn into a majority (today they probably constitute less than 10 percent of the population).
The first is that the Palestinians will turn into a majority west of the River Jordan (even today the Palestinian citizens of Israel, plus those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are approaching the 50 percent mark).
The second is that the Israeli population which does not view democracy as being of paramount importance, will turn into a majority.
Is there anything that anyone can do about any of the above mentioned developments? With regard to the haredim, one cannot stop their numerical growth, but one can try to encourage the haredi society to undergo changes that will make it more amenable to accepting the concept of pluralism as a reality, and to a “live and let live” approach. In addition, for as long as possible, determined action should be taken against fanatical groups of haredi law-breakers (e.g. some of the haredi groups in Beit Shemesh).
With regard to the Palestinians, those who wish Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state maintain that the only solution is separation – i.e. the establishment of a Palestinian state that will include all the Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens, or do not wish to remain Israeli citizens.
What is not clear is what those who want Israel to be a Jewish state, but do not care if it is not democratic, plan to do in a situation in which there is a Palestinian majority west of the River Jordan.
As to the prospect of the majority in Israel pooh-poohing democracy, all one can do is fight a rear-guard battle to try and convince as many people as possible that the consequences of Israel ceasing to be democratic would be horrendous, both in terms of Israel’s status in the enlightened group of states (which is constantly deteriorating), and the implications regarding daily life in the country.
I do not know whether the anti-democratic erosion can be stopped, but it is certainly worth our best shot.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.