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Where Have All The Secular Israelis Gone?

The other demographic crisis

Marc Tracy
November 01, 2010
Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews protesting against Iran earlier this month.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews protesting against Iran earlier this month.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

When you hear about the Israeli demographic crisis, your first thought is liable to go to the truism that, barring a major immigration or emigration to or from one side or the other, birth rates have predestined that at some point in the not-too-distant future there will be more Arabs than Jews living between the river and the sea, at which point Israel will cease to be both Jewish and democratic, etcetera etcetera. But have you heard of the other Israeli demographic crisis? Two articles appeared over the weekend approaching the fact that, among the Jews, the ultra-Orthodox will grow in population—their birth rate puts that of their more secular co-religionists to shame—and gain power in Israel, enacting policies (like the Rotem Bill) and shaping a culture that will be less desirable to more secular Israelis and lead them to emigrate (let’s face it, probably to Brooklyn). Here’s your data point: According to present trends, by 2040, 78 percent of Israeli elementary-schoolers will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.

Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest-circulation daily, published a piece with a whole heap of quotes warning of “segregation between men and women on buses, and then non-kosher food products will be banned from stores, the state will pass laws that will forbid me from eating non-kosher food.” An economist has a study that argues that the tipping point approaches. “We have two states here,” he argues. “A First World state that is considered a pioneer, alongside a state whose citizens do not get the tools and conditions to contend with the modern-day economy. The second state’s part in the overall population keeps growing, and just like a weight it keeps pulling everything downward.”

And an AP article reports that the increasing religious character of Israeli life is turning off many American Jews—the world’s other great Jewish community, and one that is in many ways a crucial supporter of their Israeli counterparts.

Of course, the thing about this Israeli demographic crisis—the prospect of secular Israeli Jews skipping town in the face of increased ultra-Orthodox prominence—is that it will either see an increasing alliance between religious Israeli Jews and religious Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and/or intensify the other Israeli demographic crisis—the prospect of Arabs outnumbering Jews. Either way, it should be a cause of concern to those who profess fealty to a “two-state solution.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.