Secular public's demographic nightmare
Long-sleeved shirts instead of bikinis? Synagogues instead of nightclubs? Pessimistic researchers say growth rate within haredi community may lead to end of State of Israel as we know it. 'If trend continues, we will no longer be part of the Western world,' one of them warns
"I'm afraid to think of what the day after may look like," says Dr. Zeev Dgani, the principal at the Tel Aviv high school Herzliya Gymnasium. "One of the first things will probably be segregation between men and women on buses, and then non-kosher food products will be banned from stores, the State will pass laws that will forbid me from eating non-kosher food, my freedom of movement will be restricted – history will be rewritten.
"We, the free people, will become a minority. Every aspect of our lives will be affected by the fundamentalist spirit. The regime will be religious and the educational system will be very intolerant. We've all heard Rabbi Ovadia Yosef say that gentiles were born to serve us. In the future such ideas will be taught to all of us," he says.
Dr. Daniel Hartman, the head of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says, "This will be a halachic state. Anyone who is committed to democratic values cannot live with the political and religious viewpoint ultra-Orthodox Judaism represents.
"Will we have a democratic regime? Will Arabs still have a right to vote? Will there be freedom of religion for those who do not agree with the (haredi) way? Will there be a Knesset? Will the ruling authority be the rabbinate or the court? What will happen on Shabbat? Entertainment venues will definitely be closed. I don't want to frighten anyone, but a halachic state is not democratic. It is a different kind of country. I believe people will come to their senses before this transpires, but I may be kidding myself out of love for this country," he says.
This is what the secular nightmare looks like: An ultra-Orthodox majority floods the country, rises to power and changes the rules of the game. Israel becomes a haredi state. Totally new dress codes and eating habits are instated. Long sleeves instead of a bikini; boiled chicken instead of sushi and bacon; gathering at a local synagogue instead of going to a nightclub. And all of this is coupled with acute poverty. Ever heard of Afghanistan? Iran?
Professor Dan Ben-David, an economist who heads the Taub Center for Social Policy, says that according the results of a study conducted by the center, the "point of no return" is closer than previously estimated. He believes an intolerant country with a haredi-Arab majority and a secular minority would not be able to exist. "We don’t have the option of being a small Third World country," he warns. "Israel cannot survive without its knowledge."
Many in the secular and national-religious public share Ben-David's fears, but there is a growing number of people who do not consider the demographic issue an existential threat. "I have a problem with the data," says Dr. Neri Horowitz, chairman of the Agora Policy think tank. Mark Twain said, 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.' Currently there is a trend within the haredi community which the statistics cannot reveal. The situation is simply too complex. Stirring panic and saying there is an 'existential threat' is irresponsible."
The graphs on Ben-David's laptop look like colorful artwork. One of them, "Israel's growth track," shows where Israel should have been compared to Western countries and where it is in fact today. Until the 1970s, Israel's economy grew at an impressive rate, moving closer to America, yet then comes a small drop in the graph known as "Yom Kippur War," which turns out to be like a virus that nobody can cure. After that, the graph is no longer able to regain its previous direction.
"We have two states here," Ben-David says. "A First World state that is considered a pioneer, alongside a state whose citizens do not get the tools and conditions to contend with the modern-day economy. The second state's part in the overall population keeps growing, and just like a weight it keeps pulling everything downward. We can maintain this inequality as long as the less-employed population groups are relatively small. The question is how big they're getting."
According to the current growth rate, by 2040 78% of Israel's elementary school students will be haredi and Arab.
"This isn't a forecast, but rather, the truth," says industrialist Dov Lautman. "If at this time 20% of Israel's children never studied English, sciences, or math, and in 20 years the figure will grow to 35%, we'll have a major employment crisis here, a drop in the standard of living, in public income, and in government investment."
"Today, we are first in the Western world in poverty and last in education," he says. "If we continue this way and the gaps grow, we will no longer be part of the Western world…even the State of Israel's security is in danger. It sounds bombastic, but that's the honest truth."
Professor Menachem Megidor, a mathematician and former president of the Hebrew University, is trying to evaluate the statistics in order to forecast the future of Israeli academia. "The problem is that a large slice of the population doesn't contribute to the infrastructure of our society", he said.
"And even if they do participate in the economy in any way, it isn't in the professions or positions that demand academic education and intelligence: academia, doctors, pilots, engineers and army and law enforcement officers. We need them more than we need lawyers, which is the usual academic route they choose to follow. The problem is a serious one, which could potentially bring down the State of Israel, yet with minor policy changes this situation can be averted."
Megidor claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's measures to reduce government child support stipends during his term as finance minister pressured the haredi world to go out and join the workforce and secular academic institutions.
Dr. Neri Horowitz, whose company advises government offices on the haredi education system, describes dramatic trends within haredi society and its organizations. "The haredi community is growing, but it will be going through a process of integration into the public system", he promises.
"There are organizations that have seen great success in this, like the Social Affairs Ministry in the field of employment for example, where they developed services that provide a response to the needs of the haredi public…those who work according to the needs of haredi society, quietly and with their complete approval, relinquishing the macro engineering of this society – will get results."
The secular world's greatest desire – a decrease in haredi birthrates, cannot be reflected in initial employment and education statistics, but behind closed doors, the change is already taking hold, as rabbis allow women who must bear the load of being sole providers, to postpone starting a family.
At the end of the day, what we have here is a battle between several cultures, and the central question is – what are Israel's chances of existing as a democratic western country?
"This question is one that is being asked in the US as well as in Israel" says Dr. Edo Nevo, a lecturer at the department of management and public policy at Sapir College. "There is a large group of religious fundamentalists that promoted Bush Jr. Sarah Palin belongs to this group – anti abortion, anti Darwin, but at a level that still allows her to be part of the American ethos which includes individualism and entrepreneurship.
"America already went through the process of religious trends at the beginning of the last century, which lasted through the 1950s in the southern states. When did it end? When they realized the Russians were light years ahead of them in the race to conquer space. It had reached a point where essential values were at stake," he says.
"Maybe we too will reach the point when we will realize that without teaching children about Darwin, without teaching them computers, Israel will be annihilated. Maybe that will be the turning point. Either they start to study and we return to the modern ethos or we continue on our swift path towards the sunset. "
Hartman says the haredi community fears such a scenario just as much as the secular and national-religious public. "Historically, the haredi community has survived only as a minority. There was never a situation whereby the ultra-Orthodox were a majority outside the ghetto. They need a secular majority to be ultra-Orthodox; they need very clear borders with the outside world, because when these borders do not exist, things such as assimilation occur," he says.
"You can remain detached from modernism only when you are part of the minority. They (haredim) are prepared to become the majority (when the messiah comes), but we're not there yet, and they are scared to death of the possibility that their community will be connected to Israel's public affairs."