The Changing Face of Israel

Avraham Burg obviously believes that the occupation has had a deeply corrupting effect on Israel. But there is something else going on inside Israel that worries him greatly: the changing nature of that society. He says, for example, that “Israeli society is split to its core,” and although he does not detail the specifics of that divide, it is apparent that it has a political and a religious dimension. He believes that the political center of gravity in Israel has shifted markedly to the right. Indeed, he believes that the left has “decreased in numbers and become marginal.” He also sees the balance between secular and religious Israelis shifting in favor of the latter, which is why he writes that “the establishment of a state run by rabbis and generals is not an impossible nightmare.”

I would like to try to buttress Burg’s analysis by pointing out some trends in Israeli society that are having and will continue to have a profound effect on the Jewish state over time, but which are hardly talked about in the mainstream media here in America. Specifically, I would like to focus on the growth of the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi in Israel, and emigration out of Israel, or what one might call “reverse Aliyah.”

There were only a tiny number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel when the state was founded in 1948. In fact, the Haredi were deeply opposed to Zionism, which they saw as an affront to Jewish tradition. However, their numbers have been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, as has their share of the Israeli population. The reason is simple: on average, each Haredi woman has 7.6 children, which is roughly triple the rate for the overall Israeli Jewish population. Thus, the Forward reported in August 2007 that : “In the 15 years from 1992 to 2007, the proportion of Jewish children attending state-secular elementary schools dropped to 55% of the total from 67%; in 2012 it is projected to fall to 51%. The percentage attending Haredi schools, meanwhile, went from 12.4% in 1992 to 26.7% in 2007 and a projected 31% in 2012.”

The rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox community has significant consequences for Israel, because only 30 percent of Haredi men work and very few of them serve in the military. More generally, it means that they are likely to play a major role in running Israel in the decades ahead. It is worth noting that in the recent mayoral race in Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox candidate, Meir Porush, said that, “In another fifteen years there will not be a secular mayor in any city in Israel, except for perhaps in some far-flung village.” He was exaggerating for sure, but his comment captures where Israel is headed, and why Burg worries about rabbis running the state.

The second trend is the large number of Israelis who have emigrated to North America and Europe, and are unlikely to return home. According to most estimates, there are roughly 5.3 million Israeli Jews and 5.2 million Palestinians living in Greater Israel. There are also about 300,000 individuals living in Israel who the Central Bureau of Statistics defines as “others.” Most are family members of Jewish immigrants or individuals who have Jewish ancestors, but not a Jewish mother, and therefore are not categorized as Jews by the Israeli government. If one counts these “others” as Jews, then there are 5.6 million Israeli Jews, not 5.3 million. Let’s do that, which means that there are 5.6 million Israeli Jews and 5.2 million Palestinians. However, not all of those Jews live in Israel anymore. It is difficult to get firm numbers on how many Israelis live abroad, because the government stopped publishing those numbers in the early 1970s. Based on various articles on the subject and conversations I had when I was in Israel this past June, it seems safe to assume that at least 750,000 Israelis live outside its borders. This means that there are now fewer Jews than Palestinians living in Greater Israel, even if you count the 300,000 “others” as Jews.

Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that a substantial number of Israeli Jews would like to leave Israel if they could. In an article that just appeared in the National Interest, John Mueller and Ian Lustick report that “a recent survey indicates that only 69 percent of Jewish Israelis say they want to stay in the country, and a 2007 poll finds that one-quarter of Israelis are considering leaving, including almost half of all young people. They go on to report that, “in another survey, 44 percent of Israelis say they would be ready to leave if they could find a better standard of living elsewhere. Over 100,000 Israelis have acquired European passports.”* I would bet that most of those Israelis who have opted to live in the Diaspora are secular and politically moderate, at least in the Israeli context. It is also worth noting that there has been limited immigration into Israel since the early 1990s, and in some years, the emigrants outnumber the immigrants.

This data seems to confirm Burg’s point that Israeli society is becoming more religious and less secular, and that the political center of gravity is much further to the right than it used to be. I can think of five possible implications of this evolving situation.

First, these trends will surely make it less likely that Israel will leave the West Bank and allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own. Greater Israel is going to be a fact of life, if it already isn’t.

Second, it seems clear that the Jews are going to badly outnumbered by the Palestinians in Greater Israel. The one key demographic fact that I did not include above is that the average Palestinian woman has approximately 4.6 children, while the Israeli figure is about 2.6 children. Greater Israel will be an apartheid state.

Third, young Israelis who think like Burg are likely to become increasingly uncomfortable living in Israel, and find the idea of living in Europe or North America increasingly attractive. And Europe, which will be facing wicked demographic problems down the road, is likely to welcome – if not try to attract – those Israelis who want to immigrate there.

Fourth, it is likely to be increasingly difficult for pro-Israel forces in the United States to make the case that Washington should maintain its “special relationship” with Israel, because the two countries have “common values.” There is not much similarity in terms of core values between the emerging Israel and contemporary America.

Fifth, it also seems apparent that it is going to be increasingly difficult for American Jews, especially younger ones, to identify with Israel and feel a deep attachment to it, which is essential for maintaining the special relationship.

In sum, Israel is in trouble, which is why Americans of all persuasions – especially those who purport to be Israel’s friends – should read Burg’s important book and start talking about it.

Ref: TPM

Also read the report in FP > The Changing Face of Israel

Perhaps the most contentious element of Yisrael Beytenu’s demographic agenda is titled “land for land, peace for peace.” Rejecting government “land for peace” initiatives with neighboring Arab states, it proposes instead to swap Israeli-Arab border towns (and Israeli Arabs) for close-in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Even with Lieberman heading Israel’s Foreign Ministry, this proposal may not surface publicly under the Likud-led coalition. Land swaps are ideologically unpalatable to either the left, for whom Israeli-Arab rights are non negotiable, or the right, for whom each square kilometer secured within the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 border) is symbolic of national sacrifice. Nonetheless, the swap appeals to many within government and in the public. Moreover, it’s another of Yisrael Beytenu’s demographic game-changers: It might circumvent the impasse created by the settlements while taking a chunk of Arab population growth out of Israel’s political future.

It is probably unwise to attempt near-term political predictions for a system where new break away parties, comingled electoral lists, and governments composed of strange political bedfellows are commonplace. We offer just one: As the secular proportion of Jewish voters recedes, Yisrael Beytenu’s fortunes are bound to improve. And that secular proportion will indeed recede, unless, of course, the rules of the game change — which is precisely what Lieberman has in mind.

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