The Crisis Within Reply

Israel’s failed efforts at conscription reform highlight a wider demographic dilemma.

Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of installments that will highlight the different demographic issues facing the countries of the Near East — and their implications on the region as a whole.

By: Geoffrey Levin

When David Ben Gurion agreed to exempt Israel’s then-small ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community from mandatory military service, he never meant to cause trouble for future generations. But this summer’s failed attempt to replace Israel’s Tal Law and end such exemptions brought the country’s most sensitive cleavages to the fore.

For secular Israelis, the exemption of Haredim from the military draft is a major source of resentment. 71% say the Haredi-secular divide is the greatest tension in their society, and 83% demand an end to Haredi military exemptions.

For Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizenry, reforms aimed at increasing Arab participation in non-military national service elicited protests. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s insistence on Arab military conscription ultimately sank a Kadima-supported compromise plan, aiding Lieberman’s sometimes-rival, the Haredi political parties, which vehemently opposed reform.

Underlying the debate is the demographic reality that soon, less than half of Israel’s population will be eligible for “universal” conscription. For Israelis, universal conscription is not only about national security, but an issue of high symbolic importance as well.

What we really see in the Tal Law debate is a struggle for Israel’s core; as the country’s periphery become the new collective majority, and as the dominant secular Jewish sector continues to shrink, Israel’s internal battles will only become more and more prominent. Not only is the state’s identity at risk, but so too is its economy, education system, civil rights, and the prospects for peace.

Discussions on Israeli demography often revolve around the relatively high Arab birth rate. Yet the birthrate gap is shrinking, in part because Israel’s two largest-growing sectors are not Arab. Rather, it is the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) and the National-Religious, an Orthodox demographic associated with the settler movement.

Assessing the consequences of these demographic trends requires an understanding of Israel’s education system. Israel’s state-funded school system is broken into four main sectors – secular Jewish, National-Religious, Haredi, and Arab. Curriculums within these school systems are entirely different, as these groups prefer; Arab schools conduct most of their teaching in Arabic, the religious schools spend time studying Jewish texts, while secular school curriculums generally resemble those in most Western nations.

Separate is not equal, however. Although students can attend schools outside their sector, few do. Arab schools tend to be significantly underfunded by the state, and as a result, Israel’s Arab students are only half as likely as Jewish students to pass their university matriculation exams. The reasons for this are manifold, but the results are clear – discrimination and lack of veterans benefits aside, Arab students, who will soon make up more than a quarter of Israel’s workforce, are not prepared for a twenty-first century job market.

The gaps within the Haredi education system may be even greater. Despite state regulations, many Ashkenazi Haredi schools barely teach any core subjects. Talmud, Halacha, and Torah are taught instead of math, science, and English, not in addition to them. Despite the fact that 74% of Israelis believe core studies must be included, many schools have not administered standardized tests in years.

Recent studies show that by 2017, nearly half of all Israeli school children will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab. The economic implications of the education gap are clear. Lack of Haredi and Arab participation in the workforce has already been called unsustainable and even an “existential threat” by leading Israeli economists. By 2050, the Haredim alone are expected to be 25% of the population. With so many citizens lacking a basic education, remaining in the OECD appears unlikely.

The political consequences may be just as great. As stalled as the peace process may seem today, is it possible to imagine a peace deal being approved by a Knesset with twice as many Haredim and National Religious members? Where will the secular Jewish minority side when it comes to religious issues – with the Orthodox Jews, or with Arabs, who oppose greater Jewish religious influence in that state for their own reasons? In a country with no constitution, the Knesset has inordinate power. Until now, the majoritarian nature of Israel’s democracy has suited secular Jewish needs enough that there has been no mass movement to legally engrain rights any further. What do these changes mean for Israel’s democracy, identity and future?

Israel was founded on pluralist rather than universalist principles in order to keep the peace between the various communities at the time of its founding. This is why Ben Gurion exempted the Haredim from the draft. It is also the source of Israel’s sectoralized education system. But the choice to ingrain the distinctions between the Arab and Haredi minorities rather than constantly challenge them may be among the nascent state’s original sins. The battle over the Tal Law is only one of many, as Israel realizes the pluralism on which the state was founded now threatens to transform it.  

Geoffrey Levin is a Senior Editor at the Jerusalem Review.

Photo credit: The Times of Israel


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