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Israel’s future depends on Haredi integration

The path of isolation will devastate the country's economy – even modest advances toward modernizing will not outweigh the demographic burden
Illustrative: Haredi Jews collect water for use in the making of Matza, from a mountain spring outside Jerusalem on April 14, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Haredi Jews collect water for use in the making of Matza, from a mountain spring outside Jerusalem on April 14, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A hundred and twenty-five years ago, Theodor Herzl failed in his efforts to persuade ultra-Orthodox leaders to join the Zionist movement. Fifty years later, after the Holocaust and before the establishment of the State of Israel, the political leaders of the Agudat Israel movement decided not to remain in isolation, signed the Declaration of Independence and joined the Israeli political system. Today, 74 years later, we are at a crossroads regarding the question of isolation or integration of the ultra-Orthodox community into Israeli society. Any decision will have critically significant consequences not only for the ultra-Orthodox community but for the entirety of Israeli society and the country’s economy.

Fundamental to ultra-Orthodox society is its isolationist or “enclave culture.” The Haredi community fights for its autonomy in order to shield itself from the temptations of modernity and secular life, and focus exclusively on strictly religious life. This enclave culture poses five main challenges for Israeli policymakers.

Economy: As a result of the low rate of employment among Haredi men and the low quality of their jobs among those who do work, the contribution of the ultra-Orthodox to the Israeli economy is minimal.

Society: The rifts between the different groups that make up the mosaic of Israeli society, especially between the ultra-Orthodox and those defining themselves as secular, run very deep and create a high level of inter-communal tension.

Democracy: Survey findings consistently show commitment to democratic values and institutions among the ultra-Orthodox to be weak, at best. For example, most members of the community oppose granting equal rights to Arab citizens, deny the full sovereignty of the Knesset, and have little respect for the authority of Israeli courts.

“Sharing the Burden”: Most of the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the military, arousing considerable resentment among their secular and modern Orthodox peers who spend three years in the IDF.

Infrastructure: The rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox community brings with it the need to speed up the development of infrastructure: towns, schools, means of transportation, hospitals, etc.

In order to tackle these challenges, over the last 20 years, a variety of policymakers have made special arrangements and adaptations towards integrating the ultra-Orthodox in major life arenas, especially in the army, higher education frameworks, and the labor market.

These adaptations – often reflected in separate structural units – are tailored to the way of life of the ultra-Orthodox society. The state supports these arrangements, often keeping them under the radar so as not to encounter backlash from the ultra-Orthodox community and its leadership. These arrangements create what I refer to as “integrated enclaves,” segregated on the one hand, while, on the other, aiming for integration (for example separate classes for men and women at universities).

So, what are the results of these efforts?

Let’s consider one aspect, participation in the workforce. Here we are seeing great success among ultra-Orthodox women: In the last 20 years, there was a major leap in employment among them: from 51% to 78%. Among ultra-Orthodox men, the picture is less clear: Despite a major increase in the employment rate, from 36% to 51%, this rate has stagnated for the past six years, with no significant increase in employment.

So what does the future hold? Can the trend towards integration overcome rapid demographic growth? In 30 years, the ultra-Orthodox will make up almost 25% of Israeli society. This implies that even if employment rises to a level of 65% or so, the negative impact of the rapid growth of the Haredi population will outweigh this increase, and will be even greater than today. Clearly, integration of the community is a critical need. 

Trends towards isolation or integration will be influenced by internal changes within ultra-Orthodox society in the next 30 years. There are three possible scenarios to be considered:

The first assumes that ultra-Orthodox society achieves a balance between integration and isolation, between those who work and those who are full-time Torah students. Given the community’s rapid growth, this situation is untenable for the State of Israel, both economically and in terms of social cohesion.

The second scenario focuses on trends toward integration over the past 20 years in Israel, and on the ultra-Orthodox model in the United States, which is one of far greater integration into the economy. But even if the Israeli ultra-Orthodox were to fully adopt the American model, on the macro level, Israel’s economy would still deteriorate, as a result of the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox community

The third and most hopeful scenario assumes that the integration process will be much quicker than what we are seeing today, due to rapid technological changes (such as smartphones and access to the internet), high levels of poverty and weak leadership, which might lead to trends towards modernity. This scenario would boost the economy and would ease the tension between the secular and ultra-Orthodox populations.

The State of Israel simply cannot cope with the first scenario. In order to progress to the second or third scenarios, we might think in terms of a pyramid that portrays the different levels of integration or isolation that government policy should promote. The most basic is integration on the functional level. To reach this level, the state should require Haredi schools to include “secular” subjects (math, English, etc.) in the curriculum and take whatever steps are needed to increase employment among Haredi men. The strategy toward achieving these major changes must combine positive incentives along with negative sanctions, carrots and sticks, such as making funding for educational institutions contingent on including “secular” subjects in the school’s curriculum.

The second level of this pyramid refers primarily to the education and employment arenas. Here we recommend that the state adopt a multicultural approach. That is, separate frameworks, and/or cultural adaptation, along with positive incentives to enable the community to continue its way of life and adhere to its beliefs.

The third level is one that is highly likely to be characterized by disagreement and controversy. There is no doubt that Israeli society will continue to engage in debate on religious and cultural matters and other important issues. But if the country is successful in achieving the first and second levels of integration, Israeli society will have the capacity to contain these disagreements.

 A hundred and twenty-five years ago, Herzl failed to convince ultra-Orthodox leadership to join the Zionist movement, but clearly, the movement has succeeded without their support. Fifty years later they signed the Declaration of Independence but, this wasn’t of critical importance. But this time around, we need to get it right. Integration of the ultra-Orthodox on the various levels I’ve described is crucial for the future of the state of Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Gilad Malach is the director of the Ultra-Orthodox Society Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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