Lesser Israel: How Jewish Extremism Threatens Zionism

A book revue by Jeffrey Goldberg appears in this month’s Foreign Policy under the title of this blog. Provocative, and on-target regarding the problems discussed. Except in recognizing and addressing the central problem: not an abuse of Israeli society by the Haredi minority, (who can blame a minority taking advantage of opportunities offered) but ideological expediency on the part of Israeli politics and politicians. 

As regards the issue of the present and future impact of the haredim on Israel, outgoing Bank of Israel chairman Fischer all but shouted the warning. Poverty is one problem. Another,

is the demographic problem. The growth rate in the hareidi population is 4.2%, which means the hareidi population will double within 17 years… If the trends continue, he warned, secular Israelis will be in the minority within 50 years.”

The failure to integrate Orthodoxy in general into Israeli society is a near-time demographic time bomb: at present divisive, “entitled” in not contributing to the tax base near what the tax base provides them in welfare payments. “Privileged” in exemption from serving in the military, not even contributing in any form of social service. Divisive. Yes, the “secular” middle has been raising the issue in street demonstrations, voted for secular Yesh Atid which forced Likud to jettison its traditional alliance, at least this election, with the Orthodox parties, and so promises, at least in the near-term, to force a measure of social reform.

Where the author falls short is in drawing attention to the source of the problem: not Israeli Orthodoxy, nor even the anti-Zionist Haredim. The problem is Israel’s political system. That which makes Israel perhaps the most “democratic” country in the world, its abundance of political parties representing ALL shades of political opinion is also its Achilles Heel. In order to form a government the main parties, none of which has ever in Israel’s history received a majority, must choose cobble together a coalition. And given the choice of ideological compromise with the parties with opposing social agendas choose instead the Orthodox parties, whose only agenda is their limited social agenda of control over the Interior Ministry (social policy) and social welfare for their limited constituencies (welfare) and military exemption.

This problem was mentioned as beginning with Ben-Gurion, and it was. He sought to provide a united Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine) to the world before the UN partition vote, and offered the two Orthodox parties the continuation of the Ottoman Chief Rabbinate, and other perks, such as military exemption as described in the article. And the die was cast.

Fixing the problem means somehow fixing the problem of coalition formation. Orthodoxy represents some 10% of Israel’s population today. A recent Justice Minister once boasted to an audience of Orthodox that Orthodoxy, at its present reproductive rate, would represent a majority in Israel in three decades. I can’t attest to the estimate, but agree with the author that the day is coming. And if things continue as present that means the non-productives will outnumber the productives and the economy will have long been unable to balance outflow with inflow. And that is just finances. Israel will lose to emigration its productives and be left with empty coffers to pay for social services, and a military at best inadequate to serve its purpose. Israel will be no more.

As I wrote above, “Fixing the problem means somehow fixing the problem of coalition formation.” At the moment Israeli politicians find compromise with the ideologically more palatable minority anti-Zionist Haredi extremists easier than surrendering the perks of ideological purity. If the parties are unwilling to benefit the state over party ideology then coalition formation will have to be replaced with something approaching the less democratic British or American model, where large parties with similar political agendas provide the most electable leader to compete, rather than political ideology.

But one thing is certain. Unless Israel undergoes a political restructuring, in several decades the state may be lost not to the enemy without, but social transformation within.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.