Israel is facing a demographic clash which could forever change its culture and political makeup as a Jewish state. This crisis is not the rise of the state’s Arab population, but its Jewish one, much to the surprise of many western Jews and Israel advocates. This specific group of Jews, the Haredi, represent the largest growing population in Israel. This tremendous growth, fueled largely by high birthrates, has the Haredi on track to become more than one-third of Israel’s Jewish population by 2059.
Bolder action on the part of Israeli politicians and community leaders is necessary if there is to be a chance to retain its Jewish culture and political makeup. Members of the Haredi community live largely isolated from the rest of Israeli society, and efforts to help them integrate have been futile thus far. The growth of the Haredi population shows no sign of slowing down, and the results could be disastrous. Members of the Haredi community deserve the same respect, access to education, and employment opportunities as the rest of Israelis.
The situation Israel finds itself in today can largely be attributed to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s post World War II decision making. In addition to the onslaught that European Jews faced by the Nazi regime, the SS and other German military groups worked relentlessly to eliminate symbols of Jewish culture and religion. This included the burning of Jewish books, artifacts, synagogues, and many other important items to Judaism.
Jewish identity and culture became in crisis of extinction from this devastation. Ben-Gurion took bold action by deciding to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service during Israel’s independence war and allowed them to instead focus on revitalizing Jewish identity, culture, and religion. Ben-Gurion made his decision based off the assumption that the Haredi community would remain a small portion of Israel’s future population.
Unfortunately, this act began an ever-growing divide between the Haredi community and Israeli society today. This cultural and societal divide has exploded throughout Israeli politics and society as the Haredi population has rapidly expanded beyond what Ben-Gurion ever expected. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the 2014 Israeli draft riots.
Cries of defiance were heard across the world as members of the Haredi community rallied to protest a bill in the Knesset that would have levied criminal sanctions against ultra-orthodox individuals who refuse to participate in military service. Israelis watched in shock as over 500,000 Haredi rallied to protest the law outside of the Knesset. To this date, the Haredi community remains largely isolated, and tensions run high between members of the ultra-orthodox community and the rest of the Jewish population. A comprehensive approach must be pursued to help bridge this divide.
To begin, Israel needs to continue working on ways to integrate Haredi members into the IDF. The IDF has proven an effective tool to help bridge gaps between communities and build strong bonds between Israelis from diverse backgrounds. To its credit, the IDF has pro-actively expanded its recruitment efforts and was successfully able to garner 2,800 Haredi IDF soldiers in 2016 – 87.5% of its target goal for that year. These efforts should be continued and supported by political and community leaders across the political spectrum.
Changes to the Haredi education system are a must. With the current system, tens of thousands of Haredi children are not given basic English, math, and science courses past the eighth grade. This severely limits opportunities for members of these communities, as they aren’t prepared whatsoever with basic workplace and life skills. Children of the Haredi community deserve the right to the same education as all other Israelis.
Basic dialogue and interaction is much needed between the ultra-orthodox community and the rest of Israel. This issue falls as much on the secular Jewish community as it does the Haredi. During my time in Israel, Jews of all backgrounds would frequently bash members of the Haredi community as “thieves of the welfare system,” “hermits,” and “draft dodgers.” These comments are not only divisive and disrespectful, but play to further the festering split in Israeli society.
Worse, I didn’t meet a single member of the secular Jewish community who had frequent interactions with or a friend who was Haredi. This lack of basic daily interaction contributes to continued tensions between communities. The Israeli government must work to better bridge this gap, as basic integration has proven time again to help reduce tensions between communities and allow them to proactively address issues together.
Decisive action is needed now more than ever to help integrate Israel’s largest growing Jewish population. Members of the Haredi community deserve the same rights, education, and professional opportunities as the rest of Israel. Without action, the ever-growing Haredi community could significantly alter the cultural and political makeup of Israel and further divide the Jewish state. The time for Israel’s political and community leaders to act is now.