The reality is Israel is changing, and has been for years. The effects can not only be felt there, but also overseas.
Dr Jonathan Boyd
19 April 2023
Dr Jonathan Boyd
19 April 2023
I’m not going to comment specifically about the judicial reforms. Not being a lawyer or political scientist, I’m not particularly qualified to do so. But more importantly, I don’t think they are the real issue right now. They are more a symptom than a cause.
The reality is Israel is changing, and has been for years. The crisis we see now is simply the latest chapter in a much longer story.
Demographically, Israel has changed beyond recognition. Fifty years ago, it had a population of about 3.3 million, with 2.8 million Jews. Today, it has a total population of about 9.7 million, with 7.1 million Jews.
Part of that change is due to aliyah – notably the huge wave from the FSU in the 1990s. But the main cause is natural growth – an excess of births over deaths. Both longevity and fertility have risen in recent decades – Israelis are living longer and having more children. Indeed, life expectancy in Israel is among the highest in the world; on average, Israelis live four years longer than Americans and ten years longer than Russians. And Israel today has the highest fertility rate of all developed countries worldwide – at about 3 children per woman (3.1 among Jews), compared to between 1.3 and 1.9 in most European countries and the US.
But religious Jews have higher fertility rates than secular ones which, over time, is affecting the religious/secular balance. We see this among all types of Orthodox Jews, but most starkly among haredim: haredi Jews comprise about 17 per cent of all Israeli Jews today; by 2050, that proportion is projected to reach about one-third.
Moreover, Israeli settlements such as Kiryat Arba, home of Israel’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, or Giv’at Ze’ev, home of the education minister from Shas, Haim Biton, have median ages of 22 years, compared to 39-40 years in more secular, liberal and prosperous strongholds such as Herzliya or Ramat Hasharon. These different age structures point to different rates of growth – in simple terms, because of their younger age profile, the national religious are growing more quickly than secular liberals.
The results of these changes are clearly reflected in election results over time. The centre ground in Israeli politics has shifted rightwards: the socialist left has largely collapsed, giving way to a more pragmatic centrism, while the nationalist and religious right have grown in influence, or at least held their ground. With the demographic winds behind them, Israel is expected to shift further to the political right over time, and become more religiously orthodox.
And the population is projected to grow, massively – to about 20 million by 2065, with 16 million Jews. The need – demand even – for more land, will inevitably increase.
Many welcome these changes. But it seems to me that they point clearly to less liberalism and pragmatism over time, and more zealotry and messianism. And an Israel that moves in that direction is likely to prioritise Jewish rights, particularly Orthodox Jewish rights, over fundamental rights for non-Jewish minorities and non-Orthodox Jews. Such an illiberal Israel is likely not only to damage its standing in the democratic West, thereby weakening its security position, but may well also prompt more secular Israelis to emigrate, thereby exacerbating the country’s security challenges and weakening its economic position.
Israel needs both its secular and its religious populations. The interaction between them creates balance – between democracy and Judaism, rationality and spirituality, civil law and halacha. It’s in that interaction that Israel finds its mission and morals; leaning too far in either direction, at the expense of the other, risks both.
And what happens there affects Jews elsewhere. For Diaspora Jews, the question is rapidly becoming not whether to support Israel, but rather which Israel to support. How they navigate that could be critical, not only to Israel, but to their futures too.
Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...Read more