Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Are the ultra-Orthodox poised to take over Israel?

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What's wrong with being religious in Israel? Nothing at all - though there is of course much controversy in Israel at the moment over the exemption from the draft for most ultra-orthodox young men following a Supreme Court ruling last week, and other issues, including women's rights.

But these controversies, and the debates surrounding them, have led to the size and influence of Israel's ultra-Orthodox population sometimes being exaggerated in the media in order to make spurious comparisons between Israeli society and dogmatic Islamic states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. So some firm facts are needed.

One needn't look far to find such exaggerations, whether deliberate or inadvertent. In January, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Hamish McDonald maligned Israel's ultra-Orthodox, by depicting them as outpost settlers and "price tag" hooligans.

"The ultra-Orthodox are 20 per cent of the population, breeding three times faster than more secular Jews. They are spilling out into the lands occupied since 1967, whittling down the territory held out to the Palestinians for their future state. Extremists among them attack their Arab neighbours and burn their mosques, then the Israeli soldiers who try to restrain them."

McDonald's column inflated the percentage of ultra-Orthodox among Israel's population more than two-fold. Futhermore, the ultra-Orthodox are largely non-Zionist - while some live in settlements, they are a relatively small part of the settler population. They are not the major ideological proponents of the settlement movement and are unlikely to be among the perpetrators of the crimes being committed by a small group of extremist settlers.

And according to a study released this year by The Guttman Centre for Surveys of the Israel Democracy Institute, as of 2009, only seven per cent of Israel's Jewish population identified themselves as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), an increase of two per cent over the previous survey a decade earlier. A further 15% choose to identify as Orthodox.

According to columnist and blogger Shmuel Rosner, who examined the data that was compiled for the final report, in further questioning an additional two percent of those classified as "Orthodox" self-identify as Haredi-Leumi, or Zionist Haredi.

Rosner followed up his original blog on the subject with another

While these represented increases for the ultra-Orthodox community since a decade ago, when the last time the Guttman poll was taken, Rosner noted that the combined numbers of Israelis identifying as Conservative or Reform had also increased to eight percent.

This means that, according to the polling statistics, there were more Jewish Israelis identifying with these more pluralistic streams of Judaism than ultra-Orthodoxy, and the rates of increase for these groups were even higher than that of the ultra-Orthodox. (Of course, all religious streams are dwarfed by the much larger demographic groups calling themselves "traditional" at 32% and "secular" at 46%.)
Rosner's conclusion:

"If you're one of those panicked over the strengthening of the Israeli Haredi community, you might want to reconsider."

Canadian academic historian Gil Troy, writing in The New Republic, says that recent stories about controversies over religious coercion in Israel do not necessarily mean that Israel is losing its way.

"The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel's imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest."

(Also making a similar case that the current controversies surrounding the ultra-Orthodox in Israel are a result not of that community's growing strength, as so many assume, but of the disruption caused by their confronting inevitable change was the AIR's own Amotz Asa-El in 2010. )

Troy notes that the alarmist demographic projections of an ultra-Orthodox surge in Israel are nothing new.

"Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming ‘normal' Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. ‘It has become a staple media trope,' Efron says, ‘with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.'"

Meanwhile, in related news, Israel is still weighing the implications of the Supreme Court's decision on February 21 preventing the extension of the 2002 Tal Law. The Tal Law exempts yeshiva students from military service providing certain condition were met, but was also supposed to encourage more of them to agree to some service, and pave the way for more of them enter the workforce (previously, Israeli law had provided a strong disincentive to work, as ultra-Orthodox young men risked being drafted the moment they stopped full time religious studies.)

Mitch Ginsburg, analyst for the new Times of Israel web site, says the end of the Tal Law probably won't be a game-changer.

"There is a temptation to call Tuesday evening's High Court of Justice ruling against the legality of the Tal Law a landmark decision, a towering ruling that will stand out against the undulating vista of history and judiciary precedent - a decision that will change the face of the IDF the way that Brown v. Board of Education changed the face of America's public school system. But that temptation is best resisted.

The Israel Defence Forces, come August 1 when the law expires, is not going to be robustly populated with soldiers in sidelocks. The 61,000 Talmud students and yeshiva dwellers currently exempted under the Tal Law will not soon arrive at the gates of Camp Dori, the IDF's induction center."

The likely outcome, Ginsburg writes, will be yet another accommodation to the ultra-Orthodox, in some form.

Most writers at the left-leaning Haaretz are pushing to draft the ultra-Orthodox. For instance, Yair Sheleg wrote that:

"Special congratulations are due to the High Court of Justice judges who handed down a ruling declaring the Tal Law, which allowed full-time yeshiva students to defer national service, illegal. They should be congratulated first and foremost for the decision itself and for not being influenced by attempts to mislead them."

However, the paper's military analyst Amos Harel has a different take on the issue, and says the High Court's decision has presented a golden opportunity for the IDF to overhaul the entire induction system to reflect the realities of modern Israel.

"This week's High Court of Justice decision affords the state and the IDF the opportunity to reorganize army service across the board. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has lately been talking about a model that makes a lot of sense: Everyone will be obliged to enlist, but the IDF will have the option of choosing those it truly needs for full service. The others will do abridged national service (firefighting, police, emergency ambulance service) or community work (assistance to the elderly, etc.).

According to Barak, the solution to the problem of discrimination that will arise - in terms of the length and difficulty of each type of service - will be found in the new quid pro quo: Soldiers, and particularly those in combat units, will receive, beginning in their second year of service, a salary that is close to the minimum wage. The money will be held for them until their discharge, at which time they will be able to use it for professional training or studies."

From a spiritual and moral perspective, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the pluralistic orthodox Shalom Hartman Institute says that drafting ultra-Orthodox would be a mistake.

"A small haredi presence in the military can be afforded its own units and rules. Massive haredi conscription will not allow for distinct units, and necessitates a common code of values and conduct and a shared willingness and ability to live together, both of which simply do not exist. In the current reality, an obligatory draft, while seemingly equitable, is in fact punitive, as it attempts to force a so-called shared collective life on a community that sees itself, and is seen by the rest of society, as distinct."

The political fallout of the Supreme Court's ruling is expected to be more serious, with most analysts now foreseeing that the expiration of the Tal Law, scheduled for the end of July, has the potential of precipitating a fatal coalition crisis, leading to early elections.

Sima Kadmon at Ynet.com offers the consensus opinion:

"The prime minister is facing a catch 22 situation: Should he produce a real arrangement for drafting yeshiva students, his haredi partners will not accept this, especially on the eve of the elections. However, should he fail to present such arrangement, he will get into trouble vis-à-vis his other partners: Lieberman, Barak, and even senior Likud figures such as Moshe Ya'alon."

Ahron Shapiro

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