Israel’s fast-growing haredi Orthodox population is, in many ways, distinct from mainstream Jewish Israelis, whether secular, traditional or modern Orthodox. Like many Israeli Arabs, large segments of the haredi community have an ambivalent relationship with the state. The haredi community, like its Arab counterpart, is also marked by high levels of poverty.
So it’s concerning that a new government study issued last week predicts that by 2059 haredi and Arab minorities will constitute half of Israel’s population. What does this mean for the future? Much depends on how effectively the government moves to integrate haredi and Arab citizens into mainstream Israeli life on both a social and economic basis. The risks are enormous: Continue to allow each community to evolve apart from the mainstream and the tensions that currently strain Israeli society will approach revolutionary proportions.
It is the rapid haredi growth rate — 6.9 children per family — that is driving the population surge. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jewish state’s population will double in about 40 years. Some 29 percent — or 5.25 million of its projected 18 million residents — will be haredi Orthodox Jews. That’s more than triple the current 9 percent.
In this “majority minority” Israel, if haredi and Arab Israelis do not hold their own in the economy, they will pull the economy down. Unfortunately, some government policies incentivize haredim to remain out of the workforce. As a result, hundreds of thousands of haredi men receive government stipends of $120 to $215 a month to study in yeshiva. Just under half of them do not work, although the percentage has been going down slowly for more than a decade.
While there are many reasons for this economic drain, there is no question that some progress is being stymied by the haredi parties in the government, who seem content keeping their constituents out of the workforce, and on the government dole. And when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizenry, the same can be said for their representatives in the Knesset — although the Arab sector’s equally depressing economic issues are also a byproduct of political undercurrents rather than simply a refusal to work.
Regardless of the reasons, no one is served by a permanent underclass. But that’s exactly what the continuation of current policies will bring. In order to avoid that result, Israel’s engaged majority must stop treating Israel’s Arabs as an afterthought, and pursue policies that will allow that community to flourish economically. That will increase their identification with the country in which they live. At the same time, the country must find creative ways to incentivize the haredi community to be a meaningful part of the overall success of the Zionist enterprise.
Neither task will be easy. But doing so will preserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, with ample room for diversity.