The Haredi Demographic Revolution

Nearly all Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews were annihilated during the Holocaust and have since through high fertility rates and proselytization among non-Haredi Jews grown to 1,8 million people, the majority living in Israel and the second largest community being in the United States.

When Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) granted exemption for military service to Haredi Jews after Israel’s 1947-49 War of Independence (the Haredi community participated fully in that war) did he assume that the small surviving Haredi community was about to disappear and become consigned to the dustbin of history. He was very wrong of course.

The Israeli Haredi community is growing rapidly and doubling every 16 years with a fertility rate of 6,5 children per mother which is down from 7,5 children per mother in 2003. The rise and rapid growth of the Israeli Haredi community means that they will eventually become the majority in Israel. This will be delayed by decades by the addition of tens of millions of Median Jews to Israel’s population, primarily through immigration but also through Israeli annexation of Median Jewish (Alawite and Druze) regions in Syria and Lebanon. 

Currently the Haredi community is dominated by non-Zionist pro-theocratic theologies which endeavor to transform democratic and liberal Israel into a Haredi theocracy, a so-called “Halakhic state”. There is however a large Anti-Zionist minority in the Haredi community which is opposed to the establishment of a theocracy in Israel until the coming of the Mashiach (messiah). This minority religiously opposes the Israeli state and therefore does not vote in Israeli elections. They are not opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel, it is just that they think that this must wait until the coming of the Mashiach and they do expect this state to become a theocracy.

The question is whether the Haredi community can be democratized? Is it possible to win over much of the Haredi community to the camp of liberal democracy? This seems unlikely considering the extreme religious conservatism of the Haredi community but it is nevertheless necessary to try to groom a new Haredi elite committed to the principles of liberal democracy and actively opposed to theocracy. This is because Israel will eventually have a Haredi majority and Israel will in all likelihood have to become less democratic than a liberal democracy, yet even more liberal than it is at present. Israel will have to transform itself from being a Jewish and democratic state into becoming a Jewish and liberal state with a new system of liberal guided democracy. 

Voluntary integration of the Haredi community into the Israel economy, Israeli academia and the Israeli military is not delivering results quickly enough and a slightly more authoritarian political system is needed to nationalize the Haredi system of education with a core curriculum, impose the draft and ensure that all Haredim learn a profession whether in academia or through vocational training.

Israeli democracy has not debated in depth what is required to ensure integration of the Haredi community without harming their ultra-traditional way of life. There is widespread understanding that integration is necessary but few seem to realize that this is hardly possible on a sufficiently large scale as long as Israel remains a full-fledged liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, democratizing Haredi society must be tried even if the prospects do not seem promising without coercion that is not possible to implement in a liberal democracy. If Israel does not, will the country eventually slide back into being a third world economy as the Haredi population explosion takes over the country in demographic terms. However, there is also a possibility that the Haredi fertility rate will continue to fall although the community will no doubt always retain a high fertility rate as even Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel have a high fertility rate. 

The question of designing and establishing a democratic and liberal political system for societies where the majority seeks theocracy is an urgent issue for many countries in the Muslim world that currently are unable to have liberal democracy due to the majority of the people favoring theocracy. The situation in Israel is complicated by most of the Haredi community refusing to integrate and this will therefore necessitate the implementation of such a political system decades before advocates of theocracy become a majority in Israeli society. The general problem is universal however and needs to explored in depth, namely the question of how to democratize and liberalize the Muslim world.

Published by Daniella Bartfeld

Daniella Bartfeld is the founding director of the Aliyah Organization.

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