Yehuda Lukacs
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Israel’s Demographic Time Bomb

The total mobilization of Israel’s military, including conscripted and reserve-duty soldiers while ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men are exempted from service is causing a significant uproar. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 Haredi men ages 18-21 can legally avoid the draft and enroll in religious seminaries (Yeshivot) instead.

76 years have passed since its founding, and Israel is facing an intense internal debate over its religious identity and the meaning of the social contract between its citizens and their state. Should accountability to the state be borne equally by all? Can civic duty and religious piety be reconciled given Israel’s Jewish identity?

1.25 million Haredim live in Israel, about 12 percent of the country’s total population of 10 million, including 2 million Arabs. Ultra-Orthodoxy, the fundamentalist branch of Judaism, is led by rabbis whose authority is revered on all personal and spiritual matters.

In 1998, Israel’s High Court ruled that the universal exemption was unlawful because of the unequal burden sharing between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Subsequent arrangements to solve this problem have failed.  The Court, responding to current petitions to force Haredi students to be drafted, has instructed the government to provide by the end of this month an explanation of why its refusal to draft Haredim is legal.

According to a new poll by the Israel Institute for Democracy, 70 percent of Jewish Israelis support ending the Haredi exemption from the draft.

The Gaza war has solidified the almost universal public opposition to Haredi privileges. Even those who are anti-war oppose the status quo.

This exemption dates to the state’s founding in 1948.

Determined to keep the ember of religious Judaism burning after the Holocaust, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, exempted 400 Haredi youth from military service so they could study in religious seminaries. He could not imagine this sector’s exponential growth in the future. In subsequent years, political machinations by the ultra-Orthodox parties transformed this gesture of goodwill into a divine right recognized by the secular state.

Haredim justify their opposition to military service by the fear that the draft will contaminate their youth, exposing them to a modern way of life, and leading to an erosion in their rabbis’ authority. Further, they contend that studying the Torah constitutes a spiritual defensive shield that protects the nation, equal in importance to active military service.

Meanwhile, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, has just issued an outlandish warning: “If they force us to join the military, we will all move abroad.” In response, many posts on social media extended offers to subsidize Haredi airfare out of Israel.

This situation illustrates the demographic time bomb that is ticking in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox community has the highest birth rate (6.4 children per family) and is projected to become the predominant group in less than two generations.

This high birth rate directly correlates with political power used by ultra-Orthodox parties to advance their constituents’ interests. In Israel, politics and demography are intertwined. Like previous governments -both left and right – Netanyahu’s stay in power rests on the support of ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset.

The exponential population growth of the ultra-Orthodox will have a highly consequential impact on the country’s future. Dr. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University estimates in an article published in Ha’aretz that in 25 years, the 0-4 ultra-Orthodox toddlers will account for 50 percent of their age group.

Ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service is the most significant aspect of the conflict between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. Surely, Israelis are upset that a large, entitled group enjoys exemption, especially during a war. But the larger issue is the absence of equitable burden-sharing in a democracy.

The Haredi community’s privileges go beyond the draft exemption.

It runs an independent school system unsupervised by the Ministry of Education. The curriculum focuses mainly on religious studies while secular core subjects such as mathematics, English, and sciences are often overlooked.

Graduates of these schools therefore lack basic skills and find it nearly impossible to integrate into the country’s modern economy.

While most ultra-Orthodox women work, only about 50 percent of the men are employed, according to Reuters. Of those men that work, 35 percent are employed part-time, in jobs with low pay and productivity. Those that don’t work study in religious seminaries.

The lack of proper modern education and its impact on skewed employment patterns also affects tax revenues. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2019, ultra-Orthodox households only paid 2 percent of the total income tax. It was estimated that average households pay 6 times more tax than ultra-Orthodox families.

Given the large size of Haredi families, they receive substantial welfare subsidies. It has been estimated that Ultra-Orthodox families collect payments which are 52 percent larger than non-Haredi households.

This is yet another example contributing to the exasperation of secular Israelis.

Netanyahu’s coalition consists of 64 Knesset members out of 120 with 18 ultra-Orthodox members from two parties who fiercely oppose a universal military draft.

The ultra-Orthodox parties receive $3.7 billion to fund their independent school system, including seminaries that shelter in the name of religion those avoiding military service.

According to Israeli media, the government’s colossal negligence to protect its citizens on October 7 coupled with the ultra-Orthodox community’s defiant stance has caused many professionals to consider emigration. Those who have already left were part of the country’s economic backbone.

Israel prides itself as a modern, prosperous “startup nation.” Yet, the ticking of the ultra-Orthodox demographic clock means that the country’s future viability is at stake.

David Ben-Gurion must be turning in his grave. His desire to safeguard religious learning after the destruction of European Jewry has clearly backfired. Will the politically powerful, privileged, ultra-Orthodox community be willing to compromise?  Israel’s democracy is at stake.

About the Author
Yehuda Lukacs, born in Budapest, received his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University's School of International Service. He is Assoc. Professor Emeritus of Global Affairs at George Mason University. In addition to George Mason, he taught at American University, University of Maryland, Corcoran College of Art and Design, University College Cork (Ireland), Eötvös Loránd University-ELTE (Budapest); and as Lady Davis Doctoral Fellow at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (Jerusalem). His books include Israel, Jordan and the Peace Process (Syracuse Uni. Press); The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Documentary Record (Cambridge Uni. Press); Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge Uni. Press); The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change with Abdallah Battah (Westview Press). He is the Executive Producer of the documentary film Migration Studies filmed in Hungary and Serbia in 2017: