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.