Demography is not destiny

by Brian on July 30, 2023

in In the News,Judicial coup

Eitan has given up on Israel. 

“There’s no future here, no hope,” Eitan, a family friend and student in Jerusalem, states, matter-of-factly.

It’s not the judicial coup that the Knesset voted in this week, nor the 29 straight weeks of increasingly strident protests against the unilateral moves just enacted by Israel’s extreme right-wing religious coalition. 

Rather, it’s the other elephant in the room, the inexorable growth of the religious population that threatens to turn this country into an economically and militarily failed state in the next 30 to 40 years.

No one has sounded the alarm as emphatically as Dan Ben-David, the head of the Shoresh Institute for Socioeconomic Research.

Ben-David has been warning for years how the government’s financial policies towards the ultra-Orthodox, if not modified or reversed, will result in a situation where half the country’s children under the age of 14 will be haredi by 2065.

If those soon-to-be adults don’t enter the workforce but stay in yeshiva, there won’t be enough tax revenue to cover all of Israel’s needs. Nor will there be sufficient young people to serve in the army to protect the nation from its enemies. 

“The haredi population in Israel has roughly doubled from one generation to the next,” Ben-David writes, based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics. “When an increasing number of Israelis receive a third-world education as children, they will be able to maintain only a third-world economy as adults.”

If these issues are not “addressed comprehensively nationwide — and very soon,” he concludes, “then an Israel unable to defend itself will not become a third-world nation. It simply will not be.”

Eitan is already packing his bags. His plan: to use his European passport to emigrate from the inevitable implosion.

It’s always upsetting when it feels like someone is dissing the decisions we made years ago to move our family to the Holy Land.

But mostly, Eitan is wrong. 

Or, at least, he’s not right yet.

Eitan believes that Israel’s current demography will ultimately shape its destiny. It won’t, Prof. Yedidya Stern explained to Amanda Borschel-Dan on her podcast about Israeli politics, What Matters Now. 

Stern heads the Jewish People Policy Institute. He notes that any analysis of future population growth is, by definition, “speculative. The reality is that all anticipation about the future demography of Israel was proven to be mistaken in the past!”

He shared two examples.

Israel’s first national statistician told Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the country will never have more than a million Jews. 

We’re at seven times that.

For many years, there was concern about the demographic “threat” posed by the Israeli Arab sector. Since Arab families were having more children than their Jewish counterparts, over time, the thinking went, Israel will lose its Jewish majority.

Instead, the average size of an Arab Israeli family is now similar to that of a Jewish one. As a result, the percentage of Arabs living in Israel proper has not gone past the original balance of around 20% of Israel’s total population.

That brings us to the haredim. Can we confidently predict the end of Israel as we know it based on ultra-Orthodox birth rates, as Eitan believes? 

Stern says we cannot.

“My anticipation is that this is going to change dramatically in the next two decades,” he told Borschel-Dan. “You see the beginning of the change right now. The age of marriage for ultra-Orthodox couples is going up and up. More people are going to work.” For ultra-Orthodox women, it’s already close to 80%. “People who go to work tend to have fewer kids.”

Haredi women out in the work world are also bringing home new ways of looking at things.

Nor are their husbands uniformly interested in staying on the dole while holing up in kollel to avoid military service. 

At a certain point, Stern says, haredi families are going to act. 

Enough already! some will say. We’re fed up with living in poverty just so United Torah Judaism and Shas can stay in power. We want a higher quality of life. We’re ready to integrate into the workforce.

Maybe that will come only when things get dire, at which point it might be too late. The haredi world needs to start educating its youth now in the core studies curriculum of English, math and science if those young people are going to have any chance of finding high-paying work in the future. 

That almost happened before the last elections, when the Belz Hassidim agreed to begin teaching those core subjects. But Benjamin Netanyahu, in his unwavering attempt to ensure his return to power, promised the Admor of Belz that his incoming government would double the sect’s school funding with no requirement to prepare students for a life outside the cloistered walls of the yeshiva. 

The Admor readily complied.

Yet, the story is far from over. 

Time doesn’t move linearly but rather in spirals. Whoever is in power today will find backlash at the next election, with the pendulum swinging aggressively in the other direction. 

That’s why I think Eitan is throwing in the towel too soon. 

Despite the anxiety Israel’s current judicial battles provoke, this is one of the most inspiring moments in our short history as a sovereign state. The secular and center-left public has woken up and is saying, in the hundreds of thousands: “We won’t let you get away with your coup. We won’t let you transform our beloved democracy into a theocracy.”

The coalition anticipated apathy. The unprecedented protests upended that assumption. 

The same could be true with demographics.

Haredi leaders would be smart to make changes now that benefit their constituents and the country as a whole, that enable young ultra-Orthodox to live a decent life and put food on the table. 

But such smarts require a proper education. That’s something that still seems far away from our benighted brethren.

I first wrote about demographics and destiny for The Jerusalem Post.

Illustrative image by Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: