Once upon a time the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) were a sideshow in Israeli society. Visitors to our country would wander through the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim and buy quaint Haredi dolls complete with their capotes (long black coats), shtreimals (fur hats) and tzitzis (fringes). Their presence in Fiddler on the Roof brought back memories of the shtetl and a world that was no more.
However, the reality on the ground in Israel today doesn’t evoke nostalgia, but rather threatens the very survival of our country.
In a disturbing article on Ynet, Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University, named “Person of the Year” by the Calcalist newspaper in 2010, warns that Israel could cease to exist in a couple of generations.
He points to the colossal birth rate among the Haredim, which reminds me of the Irish Catholics in England in the 1960s, before they started using birth control. An average Haredi family has no fewer than seven children, and Ben-David predicts that on current trends they will number 49% of Israel’s population by 2065.
Given their voting pattern – they only vote for Haredi parties — they will control the Knesset within a generation. The Shas and United Torah Judaism parties already hold a quarter of the seats in the current government and their numbers can only grow.
Were these to be parties whose Knesset members were chosen by the electorate, where women were equally represented, and where the basic values of democracy such as free elections, the rule of parliament and an independent judiciary were respected, there would be no cause for concern.
However, a country controlled by the Haredim would be more akin to Iran than to a democracy. The Knesset would be transformed into a Sanhedrin operating under the principles of the halacha (Jewish law) and the Cabinet would be turned into a Council of Torah Sages.
Prof. Ben-David is an economist. His principal argument addresses the impending decline of Israel’s economy. Most Haredi schools refuse to incorporate standard subjects such as mathematics, science and English into their core curricula. As a consequence, Israel is educating a growing percentage of its citizens in a manner that fails to equip them to contribute to the needs of a hi-tech society. Their failure to be able to do so will lead to the decline of Israel as a first world country with an inevitable impact upon its economy and its ability to defend itself.
However, while we have reached the eleventh hour, all is not lost. Following the forthcoming elections Israel could establish a coalition government without the Haredi parties, and condition financial support for their educational institutions upon their including certain core disciplines in their curricula.
Given the abject level of poverty of most of Israel’s Haredim, it is not inconceivable that a revolution could take place from within as more and more of them recognize that a decent, balanced education is a sine qua non for a reasonable standard of living.
Just as their ancestors left the miserable conditions of the shtetl for the promise of a better life in the Goldene Medina (America), they too could come to understand that their future prosperity lies in their own hands. No less than 25% of American Haredim hold university degrees! If Haredim in other countries can get an education, why shouldn’t they too?
It is time for action before it is too late.