It’s not from the Palestinians, important though they are (as I argued on these pages), nor from the wider Arab world or even Iran. The greatest danger is from within: the rapidly expanding haredi state-within-a-state whose current dynamic cannot continue without ending the country’s brittle tenure as a Western-style democracy with per capita income to rival Britain or France.
As we know, the haredim cling to a rigid interpretation of Judaism which tolerates little deviation from ancient traditions. They can be found in the US, Belgium, Britain and elsewhere, always forming tight-knit communities, but only in Israel is there a toxic firewall between them and fellow citizens.
This can be traced to the decision some 70 years ago by David Ben-Gurion to grant draft exemptions to students at yeshivot. Back then this applied to several hundred genuine scholars.
This arrangement turned Torah study into an arguably unprecedented obsession in which all haredi men are pushed to lifelong seminary duty, first to avoid the draft and then essentially as a source of welfare. Whereas other university students pay tuition, haredim receive stipends for as long as they study, if possible for life. Over 150,000 men now in these schools are indoctrinated in the faith that stricture and rabbis supersede the laws and officials of the state.
To maintain the insularity, most haredi high schoolers are sent to the community’s schools that teach little or no math, science and English; in recent days Israel’s chief rabbi, who is haredi, called such studies of secular subjects “nonsense.” Israel funds these schools even though their unfortunate graduates are essentially unemployable in a modern economy.
As a consequence less than half of haredi men are part of the workforce, the lowest participation level of any identifiable group in Israel – and, tellingly, far less than haredim in other countries. The minority who do work tend to populate a vast religious bureaucracy that includes supervisors of the mikvaot ritual baths, kashrut food certifications, and other apparatchiks.
Women in the community are banished from haredi parties’ candidates lists and encouraged to procreate with such vigor that they on average produce 7.1 children – far more than in any identifiable group in Israel. They live in a poverty rendered minimally tolerable by state subsidies for each child at the expense of working Israelis. Thus the community doubles itself every 16 years, four times the rate of the rest of Israel. The haredim have grown to about 12% of the 9.5 million people – almost 20% of the country’s Jews. Unless something changes – and the attrition rate is estimated at less than 5% – they will constitute a majority of Israel’s Jews in a few decades.
Clearly this economic setup could very well collapse, and the haredim will have to work. Perhaps the haredim might bestir themselves to somehow change their ways. But it is hard to see this happening fast enough for much to survive of the “Start-up Nation” that is a world leader in cybertechnology, agrotech and venture capital, punches way above its weight on Nobel prizes and exported television formats, is a global leader on gay rights and decriminalizing cannabis and has developed Iron Dome to zap rockets out of the sky. Indeed, it’s hard to see such an Israel compelling the secular to stay; the people responsible for all of the above can be expected to flee and take their global innovation skills with them.
TENSIONS HAVE long been high because of the ballooning draft exemptions, a flashpoint amplified by the almost uniform haredi support for the right wing (ironic, given early haredi opposition to Zionism). Many see this as perpetuating a conflict in which they refuse to fight (they are also a disproportion of West Bank settlers).
The COVID-19 crisis further raised the temperature when a considerable slice of the haredi population refused to shut schools and end large gatherings for prayers, weddings or funerals, ending up with spectacularly high infection rates (exacerbated by crowded living conditions) that contributed to Israel being the 2020 world leader in national lockdown days. (Netanyahu refused experts’ urgings for targeted lockdowns for fear of upsetting the haredim.) Occasional reports of haredim enforcing gender segregation or preventing women from singing in public wherever they gain a foothold cause further angst, as does ongoing haredi interference with public transportation and commerce on Shabbat.
It is out of deference to the haredim that Israel continues to allow all religions monopoly over formal marriage, granting Orthodox Judaism (not the majority stream in the United States), with its strict approach, authority over conversions. Thus many of the Russian-speaking immigrants are not recognized as Jews and mixed couples in general are driven to the absurdity of traveling abroad to marry.
This entire arrangement is acquiesced to and funded by Israel’s non-haredi majority whose way of life it stands to destroy by virtue of the birthrate. Partly that is out of fear of being branded intolerant – a classic problem of liberals in dealing with illiberalism.
It is possible that Israel will find a way to reboot its deal with the haredim, enforcing a core curriculum, ending yeshiva salaries, scaling back child subsidies, canceling the draft exemptions, and ignoring their wishes on matters of marriage, conversions and the Sabbath (certainly in secular areas).
It is even conceivable that this could happen within the framework of the Change Government, which does not rely on haredi parties. The right-leaning parties in the coalition – including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina – do contain religious members, but these are more modern religious people like Bennett himself, who might if anything wish to rescue the brand of Judaism from the haredim.
For Right-leaning parties to join the Center-Left in upending the current suicide march, they would need to abandon all hope for a future government that is uniformly right wing – because the Right cannot muster more than perhaps 40% of the seats in the Knesset without them.
This means that the fate of Israel rests with the Palestinians. If Israel and the Palestinians find a way to reach peace (or at least defang the conflict), a critical issue that gives the right wing meaning in Israel will disappear.
If they do not, then the Right may never find the courage to break decisively with its haredi flank.
Anyone who cares about Israel surviving therefore has a second reason to yearn for peace.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, and a former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem. He is the managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him on Twitter: @perry_dan