Jewish Journal


August 5, 2010

Another Demographic Time-Bomb



Yesterday’s Financial Times painted a dark picture of Israel’s future based on current demographic trends, and not just the ones involving Arabs.  Their article quotes Professor Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University as saying that “the average ultra-Orthodox woman has no fewer than six children.”  It cited a study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies projecting that “if the changes of the past decade continue, then in 2040 the share of ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab pupils will be 78 per cent of all pupils in Israel’s primary schools.”  And the consequences are not left to the reader’s imagination.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s finance minister, doesn’t mince words.  “Without a change now,” he told a conference, “within 10 years the situation will be a catastrophe.”  One professor says, “This amounts to the most serious threat for the existence of the state of Israel in the long run.”  As with any time-bomb, the clock is ticking.  “There is a point of no return, and when we cross it we will not be able to change things democratically – and maybe not at all,” says the Taub Center’s Dan Ben-David.

These doomsday predictions follow reporter Tobias Buck’s description of haredim in Mea Shearim.  “Men still wear the long black robes and fur hats of their ancestors,” he observed.  “Yiddish remains widely spoken. Strictly observant, they tend to shun the secular workplace, dedicating their lives to religious studies and prayer. Television, the internet, miniskirts and pop music – all are kept at bay by a rigorous moral code that rejects the values and gadgets of modern society.”

Those tropes—they dress differently, they speak a different language, they keep to themselves, they reject the dominant culture—used to be applied to Jews generally.  One subtext was that Jews would be better off if they behaved more like everybody else.  For today’s American Jews—the vast majority of whom are assimilated in their clothing, language, and culture—the separateness of the haredim can also seem to be the source of the problem.  Some secular Israelis would agree.

The actual problem is that government subsidies for haredi men who learn rather than work, and their exemption from Army service, create economic distortions.  If there are incentives not to acquire a secular education, participate in the work force, or help defend the country, there will naturally be lower education, less employment, and a weaker army.  Like Congressional earmarks for pet projects in agriculture, public works, or homeland security, these incentives are the product of negotiations in the political process (as the FT article acknowledges).  And like other earmarks, they divert resources from the public good to benefit a narrow constituency.

The communal lifestyle of the haredim is beside the point; the decision by the Knesset to subsidize that lifestyle is the real issue.  There’s no need to single out superficial particulars of haredi practice to conclude that it’s not in the public interest to perpetuate enormous transfer payments from productive citizens to these less productive ones.  People who recognize the benefits of diversity, and who object to the marginalization of the Other, might be expected to defend the distinctive practices of a religious and cultural minority like haredim even while opposing the subsidies.  But that rarely happens.  To paraphrase George Orwell, some groups are more Other than others.

If it’s in Israel’s interest to achieve higher levels of employment, education, and military service, as it surely is, the Knesset will need to cut the incentives that lead citizens to make other choices.  That is no easier than stopping pork-barrel spending in the U.S. government, however.  And demonizing the haredi parties who block such reform is no more productive than demonizing senators like Iowa’s Tom Harkin for managing to send $132,700,000 in Congressional appropriations to his home state last year.  The pragmatic solution is legislation crafted so that a majority of Knesset members will vote for reform.  There’s no substitute for a political response to a political problem.

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  He also blogs at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.

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