The Rise of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox

There was an interesting piece in Saturday’s Financial Times on how the rise in Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population is a source of increasing tension within the country. Here’s a key extract

Once a tiny minority, the community today accounts for at least 8 per cent of the Israeli adult population. It is forecast to double every 16 years. In Jerusalem more than half the Jewish children attending primary school hail from ultra-orthodox families. A survey by Israel’s Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies highlighted the economic consequences: almost two-thirds of ultra-orthodox men do not work, meaning that a rapidly increasing share of the population depends on state welfare. Many ultra-orthodox schools refuse to teach the core curriculum, so thousands of pupils grow up with only a rudimentary knowledge of maths and none of other sciences, foreign languages or non-religious history.

“The great majority of ultra-orthodox men are not able to work in most vocations in the modern world. They are very much dependent on government support – and that has aggravated a lot of people,” says Menachem Friedman, a professor at Bar Ilan -university. The ultra-orthodox are coming to be seen as a heavy burden. Calls for reform of their schools are growing, as are demands to draft yeshiva students into the army. Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, declared earlier this month that the state must act against “insulated and ignorant sectors which are increasing at a frightening speed and are jeopardising our political and financial strength”. According to Mr Ilan, the tensions will increase. The next Israeli election, he argues, “will be fought on the subject of religion and the state”.


Food for thought, as, I suspect, is the question of what the increase in the numbers of the Ultra-Orthodox could ultimately mean for the perception of Israel in the West. Yes, there are some evangelical Americans whose enthusiasm for Israel is fueled by their own odd and rather unseemly anticipation of the End Times, but, for the most part, Israel derives its support from the fact that it is seen as a ‘secular’ pro-Western democracy in a part of the world not generally known for such phenomena. For that reputation to be eroded by a growing fundamentalist minority could be very damaging indeed.

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18 Responses to The Rise of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox

  1. Joel Katz says:

    For more on this issue, please check out Religion and State in Israel at

    [Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.]

  2. The Ktzois says:

    Here’s a view you won’t read anywhere else.

    The Ultra-Orthodox are the most important group on Planet Earth (told you) because they are the feeder population for that thin sliver of humanity that contributes more to the world of science and ideas than any other group in world history – Jews within 80 years out of Ultra-Orthodoxy.

    I know this sounds like a joke but it isn’t.

    Einstein, Freud, Feynman, Teller, Singer, Brin, Kasparov, Kissinger, Marx and Zuckerberg – every major world figure Jew you’ve heard of was three generations out of Ultra-Orthodoxy at the most.

    The Ultra-Orthodox are wholly useless, they use their minds for the most idiotic of pursuits (shav shmaytze anyone?) but their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren produce somewhere around 10X as much innovation as their runner-ups. Their great great great grandchildren however are goyim and if there’s anything special remaining among them it’s sufficiently diluted so as not to stand out too much.

    The Ultra-Orthodox provide us with the next generation of paradigm changers, that’s useful enough – particularly once you realize that these paradigm-changers can’t self perpetuate on their own. Without their religion Jews are wholly incapable of remaining Jews (as the failed experiment of Israel will demonstrate within the next half century).

  3. Ross says:

    The tensions with the largely secular, bacon eating Jews from Eastern Europe should be interesting to see. Judging by the support for people like Avigor Lieberman they aren’t as sanguine about supporting passengers as the earlier Israelis.

  4. Sully says:

    On the other hand, what single picture evokes Israel for the tourist trade? Orthodox praying at the Great Wall, of course. The Orthodox are, in effect, costumed color employees in a theme park.

  5. Don Kenner says:

    Israel has managed to become an economic powerhouse and technology giant while supporting these people in the past, so I’d be surprised if they alone (through birth rate?) could derail Israel Inc.

    There certainly is tension between the Ultra-Orthodox and non-Ortho population, but this tension is increasing precisely because of Israel’s increasing trend toward secularism.

    Allowing a group of people to “opt-out” is always problematic. No one likes to pay for someone else’s bread. Like the Ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arabs don’t have to do military service, I assume because the Arabs are not deemed trustworthy. Personally, I’d have them patrolling the Disputed Territories, but I’m perverse that way.

  6. John says:

    Here’s another “demographics is destiny” illustration. I can speak only for myself, but I would definitely feel differently about Israel if it turned into a fundamentalist religious state instead of an outpost of the Enlightenment West in the Middle East.

    The solution to the government support problem is a nice dose of libertarianism, but if the two fastest growing groups in Israel are Arabs and Orthodox fundamentalists, there is no chance of change occurring in the right direction.

  7. Susan says:

    From a purely economic standpoint, I’d be worried about the increasing numbers of men who won’t work for religious reasons, preferring to study The Torah instead. The state already subsidizes them, but should it be required to do so?

    This isn’t traditional Judaism, certainly, which even among the regular Orthodox enjoins a man to teach his son a trade, so that he may support himself and his family.

    Interestingly, the biggest community of Haredi outside Israel is in the United States.

  8. kurt9 says:

    …because they are the feeder population for that thin sliver of humanity that contributes more to the world of science and ideas than any other group in world history…

    At least until we figure out how to genetic engineer the rest of us with 160 IQ, which is unlikely to take longer than 2-3 decades.

  9. skeptic says:

    You’re an optimist, kurt9. Intelligence may be a trait in part controlled by many genes, most of which we haven’t even discovered yet. Moreover, we can’t even successfully “engineer” one-gene traits currently. Embryo selection is likely to be the main tool at our disposal for quite a while.

    The problem with ktzois’ idea is that the current crop of ultra-orthodox Jews are even more reactionary and cut off from secular life than their pre-Englightenment ancestors were. There’s no guarantee that with minimal education and no involvement in business life that they will ever be exposed to any ideas that might captivate a subsegment of them and draw them away from ultra-orthodoxy to create the next generation of productive secular self-identified Jews.

  10. Billare says:

    I agree entirely with Ktzois. These ultra-Orthodox are not the sons of goatherders and nomads; they are 80% Ashkenazi, meaning there’s alot of underlying genetic talent there. The children will rebel, as they do, and some will become Orthodox, and many of their own children will drift towards Conservative/Reform/”mainline” Judaism and join the mainstream economy — after all, in a networked age, there are only so many jobs and leadership positions to pass around cogitating on the Torah.

  11. Kat says:

    I can’t believe some of you guys. This focus on “genetic stock” is flatly ridiculous. The most important predictors of a child’s intelligence are going to be how he is raised and the culture he is raised in. Clearly genetics plays a role but it is so minor compared to the culture that it’s not even worth mentioning. I’m not enthusiastic about the prospects of Jewish children raised in fundamentalist households in Israel any more than I would be if they were raised in this country in fundy Protestant households that refuse to even teach them evolution for Chrissake.

    For the record I’m a biologist as well as one of those intelligent folk of Jewish descent ya’ll are apparently hoping will multiply. So hopefully I’m not completely ignorant on these matters. You can’t just cite trends based on non-essential characteristics and say we need to continue them. It’s like those guys at the stadium who won’t put their beer down because the team scored a touchdown the last time they held their beer up.

  12. kurt9 says:

    You’re an optimist, kurt9. Intelligence may be a trait in part controlled by many genes, most of which we haven’t even discovered yet.

    Actually I’m a pessimist.

    An optimist believes in the PC notion that intelligence is due entirely to environmental factors and that all of the kids will be above average (and the women strong and men good looking) once we recreate Lake Woebegone’s public education system in the rest of the country.

  13. John says:

    Clearly genetics plays a role but it is so minor compared to the culture that it’s not even worth mentioning.

    Sorry Kat, but you’ve got some serious literature searching to do.

  14. Kat says:


    More literature searching beyond being a biologist? I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that the body of knowledge I’ve built up within my field makes me unqualified to understand genetics.

    A lot of the studies which purport to show some kind of populational effect on intelligence which is then linked back to genetics (which is what I assume we’re talking about here, correct me if I’m wrong) have such flawed methodology that I can’t believe some of them got published. For example, many of them use voodoo statistics or make me wonder if the original authors understand statistics at all. Worse still, many of them use horribly flawed assessments of intelligence. Did you know one of the major “IQ tests” in many of these studies is a simple ten-word vocabulary recognition test? 10 words! 10 words tells you how smart someone is??? You can feel free to be convinced of such evidence but my standard for acceptance is much higher.

    Pull out an argument or some research above the level of garbage like The Bell Curve and we’ll talk. What I would think needs to be shown here is that a) there are convincing populational differences in intelligence and b) these differences are causally linked to genetic differences in those populations.

    My position is, in contrast, that 1) any differences between populations are completely irrelevant given the difference found within those same populations, and 2) populational differences, if shown by sound methodology, need not be attributable to genetic differences – this conclusion requires additional evidence.

  15. fddf says:

    Kat, mentioning your credentials as a biologist is a shaful mistake. It makes you look really, really stupid – in a willfully blind sort of way. Mentioning your credentials as a Jew though only works against the gravitas you tried so hard to impart. The fact that, for a variety of social, cultural and biological reasons Jews tend to deal with this subject with characteristic modesty and to deny the matter entirely is pretty well known by now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s admirable, nobody likes a preener, but very very expected.

    Back to the biology thing then, you do yourself no favors by pointing to your degree and then espousing creationism. In fact, if I were you I’d be very ashamed of myself right now and would rush to place the blame on a knee-jerk reaction that’s logical enough in the university but not so much in a self-inflicted comment on an anonymous blog.

  16. John says:

    Kat, I wasn’t making an argument about populational differences, I was challenging your statement that “The most important predictors of a child’s intelligence are going to be how he is raised and the culture he is raised in. Clearly genetics plays a role but it is so minor compared to the culture that it’s not even worth mentioning.”

    The fact that genetics plays a very important role in individual differences in intelligence has been proved by adoption studies, twin studies, and all sorts of evidence. People have even found some alleles that have been shown to correlate with IQ, which pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of the extreme environmental position. A psychometrician who claims that the impact of genes on intelligence is “not worth mentioning” is like a biologist who doesn’t believe in evolution.

  17. kurt9 says:

    There clearly is a genetic component to intelligence. If there was not, it would be possible to take most any kid, put him in the “right” cultural and educational environment, and have him come out with a 160 IQ.

  18. Panglos says:

    “…because they are the feeder population for that thin sliver of humanity that contributes more to the world of science and ideas than any other group in world history…”

    Then why is not Israel in the top ten countries ranked by IQ?

    It ranks 15 after mostly Asian and European countries.

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