Israel’s Twin Demographic Challenges

Newt Gingrich may call the Palestinians an “invented people,” but how Israel addresses the demographics they represent – and the surging numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews, too – will likely define the future nature of Israeli society, former senior CIA official Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Demographic trends that argue against indefinite continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are fairly well known. There are about 5.8 million Jewish Israelis. Arabs in Israel number 1.4 million, which when added to the 4.1 Arabs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza give a total of 5.5 million Arabs.

The gap between numbers of Jews and Arabs is shrinking because of a higher Arab birth rate. The gap is further shrinking because in recent years immigration to Israel has slowed while emigration has accelerated. In as little as three or four years from now, Arabs will likely outnumber Jews in mandatory Palestine as a whole—i.e., in all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

The Arab majority will thereafter continue to increase. These demographic realities constitute the main reason Israel will be unable to be democratic, controlled by Jews, and embracing all of Palestine. It can be any two of those things, but not all three.

Less well known are some demographic trends within different segments of Israel’s Jewish population. A recent report compiled by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics makes some projections looking out nearly 50 years, to 2059. The report separates out for the first time in any such official public reckoning the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, which has a significantly higher birth rate than other Israeli Jews.

The ultra-Orthodox currently make up about ten percent of Israeli society but by 2059 are projected to constitute over 30 percent. The disproportionate growth of the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also called, has severe implications for Israeli society and the Israeli economy.

About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work for a living. They spend their time in religious study at yeshivas while they and their fast-growing families subsist on government stipends. This already constitutes a major burden on the remainder of Israelis and is a contributor to the economic discomfort that stimulated widespread demonstrations earlier this year.

If the projected increase in the ultra-Orthodox proportion of the population involves a proportionate increase in those not contributing to the economy, it is hard to see how the even larger burden on everyone else could be sustained.

The ultra-Orthodox also are not subject to the same military service requirements as other Israeli Jews, constituting another area where the burden is all the greater on the others. Then there is the effect on social mores and freedoms. The growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox has already raised issues regarding the status and liberties of Israeli women. A further expansion of that influence will make Israel an ever more illiberal place.

Clearly these trends present Israel with a very serious challenge to its vitality and even to its survival as a society recognizable and acceptable to most of its current citizens. A major question is whether the privileges and influence of the Haredim can be curbed before they become so large a proportion of the population that curbing is no longer politically thinkable.

There has been some official recognition of the danger, as reflected in efforts to get more of the ultra-Orthodox into the work force, including the performance by some of auxiliary duties in support of the military. But privileges that go so far and are so firmly entrenched will naturally be stoutly defended.

When an ultra-Orthodox rabbi suggested last year that full-time, government-financed religious study should be reserved only for exceptionally promising scholars who are groomed to be rabbis or religious judges and that other ultra-Orthodox men should “go out and earn a living,” he was so vehemently denounced by his own political party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, that he had to be assigned a bodyguard.

Another factor is the effort, described by Benny Morris, by the broader political Right in Israel to solidify and institutionalize its power at the expense of the Left. Given the normal alignments in Israeli politics, this development will make even more difficult any curbing of the influence of the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel has achieved a commanding position in confronting any perceived dangers from outside its borders, including overwhelming conventional military superiority over its neighbors and an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is vastly greater than any other state in the region could dream of acquiring. Its greatest dangers come from within.

Paul R. Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site.)

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9 comments on “Israel’s Twin Demographic Challenges

  1. This opens a most interesting discussion regarding the power of the government in terms of Taxation. The issue is not unlike the US issue of immigration, legal or illegal of people who are outside the immigration law of “may not become a public charge” That is the immigration law.

    Now one might ask on what basis can the public be forced to pay via taxes for the support of special groups. Under the circumstances it would appear the people may refuse those expenditure. As for religion, Asian Monks must earn they living by public charities and Temple donation. Simply stated, it is not the duty or responsibility of a civil government in a secular society to subsidize religion (US Constitution forbids it) or non-invited immigrant that do not meet the rule of “an immigrant must have a sponsor making sure the immigrant does not become a public charge”.

  2. The Iraq/Iran war is a bit more complicated but the answer to the question is easy for those that remember how the Iraq war got started. These are times when it is nice to be an 86 years old with a fully working mind and memory, one does not have to rely on changed facts. As I recall Congress authorized the invasion of Afghanistan to demolish Bin Laden headquarter and training ground for terrorists. Then I recall a conversation between Bush and Sharon where Bush asked Sharon “so you think that if we take out Saddam you can settle the Palestinian issue” Sharon responded without hesitation “you take out Saddam who is giving money to families of suicide terrorist to pay for the home we destroy as punishment and Assure you I will have the Palestinian on their knee in no time, it is all about money”. And so Bush went to get Saddam. At this point Iran, tired of Bush and others sharp tongue and nasty names had elected Ahmadinejad, a nasty fellow that could match Bush. The oil people who were part of the neocon for more materialistic reason wanted the Oil and VP Chaney had been paid 30 million dollar by his company to secure those military orders the Iraq/Iran oil fields. The Iraq war took longer than expected and Bush was being pushed. “move on what are you waiting for, you are so close go to Iran” This time Bush high regard for Sharon had diminished he remembered he was the President of the USA, so he said NO we are going to Democratize Iraq. Saddam was dead and so were many US soldiers and Iraqi people, Bush was concerned with History, this was not how he wanted to be remembered. So he waited out his term trying to put Iraq back together the best he could.
    Now, with a good memory for facts, it is not too difficult to see what happened, as long as one is not tempted to cover the whole unpleasant facts with passionate narrative.

  3. rosemerry on said:

    The article seems to be sympathetic to the plight of the ever-expanding, increasingly extremist, military-reliant entity that pretends to be a democracy. If israel were not constantly propped up by US arms, finance, vetoes in the UN, it would have to try to get along with its neighbours. Slave states and colonialism have shown that it is not the numbers of the dominant class that matters. Israel has no intention of “giving” rights to Palestinians- Likud and its partners are removing the few that remain- and if the world stands by, this will get worse.

  4. Interesting piece; thanks.

  5. This article is clearly a hodge podge of shoddy research and figures presented as the typical scare tactics to jew world wide. First, Israeli jews have a higher fertility rate than all their arab neighbors. second, this article, like many others, relies on census predictions made back in 1997. These predictions make the west bank the fastest growing population in the world, aka highly unlikely. second, what of palestinian emigration? 500,000 palestinians in Chile by accident? third, doubling time (look it up) is treated totally differently when applied to arabs and haredi. by 2059, haredi are likely to grow between 3-4 million if the pop. doubles every 12-20 years 750,000 x 2 = 1.5 mil x 2 = 3 mil x 2 = 6 million. arab population in israel and west bank doubled over a period of 30 years – 1980-2010. fourth, unemployed haredim have an internal economy most people of dont care to read or know about. so stop scaring people with it. fifth, does anyone else see the scare tactic in the paradox between a people (haredim) who dont want to have connections to outside society and trying to dominate it. it wont happen. they’ll just be 2 different kinds of people like they are now. lastly, terribly disrespectful to call a country an ‘entity’. thats the epitome of prejudice. the west bank isnt an entity. gaza isnt an entity. this inflamatory language will kill us all. think before you speak.