The real demographic threat?

by Maskil on August 4, 2007

Friday’s online edition of the Forward carried two excellent pieces (one news, one editorial) dealing with the challenges presented by the demographic growth of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector of Israeli society.

From its establishment, Israeli society and its leaders – from Ben-Gurion through to his nemesis Begin – made the mistake of treating the Haredi sector as a sort of picturesque relic or curiosity (perhaps something that made Jerusalem’s older neighbourhoods more photogenic). With the passage of time, it has become increasingly apparent how mistaken this view was, and that the Haredi explosion may in fact be the real demographic threat to the nature, and even the survival of Israel.

Despite their impressive birth-rate, this problem did not just happen by itself. It was aided and funded by Israeli society at large; aided by the nature of the Israeli political system and funded by the long-suffering Israeli taxpayer. The genie can only be put back in the bottle by means of the political/constitutional processes, which in turn should bring this subsidised growth-rate back to normal levels.

The peculiarities of the Israeli political system make it extremely difficult to address the issue holistically. In addition, any measures taken should not violate Israel’s democratic nature by discriminating against the Haredim, but rather by ensuring that they are treated in an equitable manner, and that any special privileges and concessions are removed.

In my view, there are four interlocking and inter-related components at work here:

  • The Israeli welfare system, that allows the indigent Haredi lifestyle and birth-rate to flourish at the taxpayers’ expense
  • The subsidising of the Haredi school system at the expense of the state school system, making the former more attractive to the latter to many
  • The system of deferments and exemptions that allows the bulk of Haredi school-leavers to dodge service in the IDF
  • The political concessions, compromises and simple blackmail that make this all possible

What kind of changes would be required in order to reverse the development? I suggest that the following might be a starting point:

  • The phasing out of all welfare grants and subsidies that make it possible to choose and maintain an indigent lifestyle coupled with a high birth-rate. Welfare benefits should be reserved for genuine welfare cases; work-seekers, the temporarily unemployed, the disabled, etc.
  • An end to any and all subsidies for non-state, i.e. private schools. As in the rest of the world, those who choose to send their children to private schools should be expected to foot the bill. Private school systems should not be privileged at the expense of the public school system! In addition, those schools that do not provide pupils with appropriate life skills or do not teach the public school core curriculum should simply be closed down.
  • An immediate end to all blanket deferments or exemptions from military service on the grounds of religious study. Each request for deferment or exemption should be dealt with on its own merits. The menu of choices should be limited: service in the IDF, alternative national service in one of the other security or emergency services, or jail. A review of Hesder and other special arrangements in IDF should also be undertaken to determine whether they are still suitable or appropriate. Issues around Kashrut, single-sex units etc., should also be dealt with. In addition, subsidies to all yeshivot and kollelim not approved by the education authorities should be ended, while, study at any of these should not be cause for deferment/exemption.
  • Finally, a basic law that will prevent any of these perversions of democracy to be reintroduced into Israeli society, whether by means of legislation or through dirty little coalition deals.

With these inequities removed from Israeli society, the ultra-Orthodox sector will be able to take its rightful place, and make a meaningful contribution to Israeli society, the Jewish people and humanity as a whole.

Rapid Rise of Israel’s Orthodox Schools Sparks Fear of Army, Work Force Shortage

Israel’s Hidden Crisis

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