The doctor at the HMO clinic recognized our name, and poured his heart out to us. He is an Israeli with European citizenship. He has a house in one of the rich countries of northern Europe, where he also works four months a year – he speaks Arabic, so his clinic there is overflowing with Muslim refugees.
“If they ask where my Arabic is from, I reply: Palestine,” he says. On advice of his accountant, he has another home, on an upscale island that serves as a tax shelter. And yes, “If Benjamin Netanyahu wins 61 seats in the Knesset” – this was before the election results were known – he is “packing up” and moving for good to his tranquil northern European home. There is nothing in Israel for him anymore.
To our shame, we heard his words and kept silent. What is there to say to a doctor, who has citizenship and guaranteed work in a rich northern European country?
We recalled the skit from the satirical TV show “Eretz Nehederet” about Israelis streaming in droves to get the coveted Portuguese citizenship – this doctor’s citizenship is much finer – and couldn’t help but ask ourselves if Israel is on the path of its northern neighbor, Lebanon. Which is to say, a country whose demographics drove it into decline, and whose rich and educated elite took the hint, and mostly fled.
There is no doubt that Israel’s data are frightening. Haredi demographics are unequivocal: Today they are 12 percent of the population, but with a birth rate of 6.6 children per woman, the Haredim are projected to become a third of the population by 2065. Assuming the Haredi lifestyle doesn’t change, then in a few decades Israel will be a country, a third of which doesn’t study the core curriculum, doesn’t serve in the military, doesn’t work (or works little at low-paying jobs,) and of course consumes more in stipends than it pays in taxes.
No economy can carry a third of the population that hardly works and hardly contributes to the gross domestic product. The meaning of these demographics is the economic decline of the State of Israel – like the neighbor to the north, we will deteriorate over several decades, until we find ourselves with a third-world economy.
But the economy alone is not the problem. The Haredim are a religious, conservative, intolerant population that supports the exclusion of women and opposes the LGBTQ community. To this add what the recent elections have revealed – the Haredim are the most right-wing population in Israel, with nationalist, even racist tendencies.
Opinion polls conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute in 2019 revealed how racist the Haredim are: To the question whether it was justified for Jews to have more privileges than Arabs, 76 percent of the Haredim replied yes, as opposed to 20 percent of the secular respondents.
The state’s self-destructive urge
It’s hard to say that all this comes as a surprise. Prof. Dan Ben-David has been warning for at least two decades that Israel is heading towards a cliff: High fertility rates among the poorest and least educated segments of the population, which refuse to serve in the army or join the workforce.
Ben-David attributes this to the fact that Israel supports the Haredi lifestyle through various allowances, but mainly by supporting the ultra-Orthodox educational system. All stages of education receive state funding, starting with the bending of the law to enable ultra-Orthodox toddlers to be admitted to subsidized day care centers, even though the regulations state that admission is contingent on both parents working (the law exempts parents who are full-time students, which Haredi men are considered to be).
Likewise, they bend the law requiring schools to teach the core curriculum. The law is broken twice over. The first time is when the Education Ministry takes care not to supervise Haredi schools or verify that they are teaching the core curriculum, enabling them to qualify for state aid. The second time is more serious – that the law allows the two leading ultra-Orthodox education networks – the independent school network of the United Torah Judaism party and the Ma’ayan Hachinuch network of the Shas party – to receive full state funding even though it’s not verified they met the criteria.
The result is that the State of Israel is using the tax money of the citizens who study, serve in the army and work for a living to pay for the costs of an educational stream that fails to prepare its students for the labor market and, of course, fails to teach them the values of tolerance and democracy. With our own hands we are funding the education of the future generations of the ultra-Orthodox, who will vote against the way of life of the modern state of Israel and against its chances of continuing to be a prosperous and successful country.
This is a kind of self-destruction that doesn’t exist in any other country. Other countries don’t fund private school systems and even require private ones that don’t receive state funding to adhere to the government’s program of core studies. It’s inconceivable that a country enables a part of the population to cut off the branch it’s sitting on.
The problem is that we’ve become a hostage to this creature of self-destruction because of the power the Haredim wield in governing coalitions. And, as long as their numbers continue to grow, so will our political reliance on them; surrender to their demands will continue to grow as well.
This is a feedback loop of self-destruction, reminiscent of Lebanon of the last 50 years. It’s scary to see what happens to countries that over the years keep taking the wrong decisions because political and demographic pressures keep pushing them in that direction.
Well, the elite has a solution: Pack their bags and flee. This is something that we have always excelled at – being the Wandering Jew. Except that until now, we had wandered between gentile countries, running from persecutions and pogroms; this time, we’ll be fleeing from our own country, one whose characteristics we were supposed to have determined.
We’ve seen the enemy and it is us, which means that there is something we can yet do.
At least some experts on the Haredi world contend that the growth of the community is not unidimensional. As it grows in size, it is also becoming more diverse and an increase in those on its margins. It’s easy to remain enclosed in the walls of a ghetto when you are a tiny minority, but how can you maintain that same level of separation when you become a third of the population? Accordingly, there are those who say the Haredim will never become one third of Israel’s total population because along the way more and more will escape the confines of the ghetto. If so, that demands policies that will help the drop-outs.
The Haredim will never be political white doves, but there is room to assume that the drift towards Ben-Gvir’s nationalism is also due to the undermining of personal security in the past year. Therefore, a change in the security situation, as well as a change in the leadership of Likud to someone more reasonable than Benjamin Netanyahu, will influence the Haredi vote.
It is worthwhile remembering that the majority of ultra-Orthodox continue to vote according to the dictates of their rabbis, and historically, the rabbis were rather moderate in their worldview. A change in the attitude of the parties of the left towards one of more tolerance and respect for the Haredi lifestyle may also change the political map.
In general, the Israeli elite is very strong, innovative and economically secure. The State of Israel can’t exist without its elite, so its power and influence on policy remains, even when it loses at the polls. No government will come out against the high-tech sector, for example, and that grants the elite the power to continue to fight for the right policies vis a vis the ultra-Orthodox.
The official encouragement of fertility in Israel, which is twice the average rate for developed countries, and its funding of an educational system that doesn’t teach the core curriculum are acts of self-destruction. The politicians know this, and when the day comes that we have a more statesmanlike leader than Netanyahu, a desperately needed change in policy should follow.
The demographics speak for themselves and the figures are scary, but to pack your bags and flee is a defeatist strategy and an unnecessary one. For now, the Jews have no other country, not in Europe, where the future is not so bright. Our only hope lies in unpacking our bags and insisting on fighting to improve the State of Israel’s character – together with the ultra-Orthodox.