Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox ‘Problem’ – A Threat to the Zionist Project?

Ultra-Orthoox Jews writing a Torah scroll in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit, near Jerusalem. (Photo: דודי פרידמן, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Robert Inlakesh

The Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, are crucial to the Israeli state model in a number of ways, yet, in others, are antithetical to the Zionist mission. 

Although Ultra-Orthodox Jews hold Israel’s highest population growth rates, occupy a large portion of illegal settlement housing and now hold considerable power in government, there is growing resentment in Israeli society against their inaction towards state function. 

This is now coming to a head in the Knesset and may threaten Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, as well as the emergency war government.

Highest Population Growth

The Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, are crucial to the Israeli state model in a number of ways, yet, in others, are antithetical to the Zionist mission. 

With the highest population growth of any group of Israeli citizens, the Haredim, who were last recorded to have a population of 1.28 million in 2023, are on track to become 16 percent of the total Israeli population by the end of this decade. 

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Israel’s explicit goal of being a state in which only Jews are afforded self-determination, enshrined in the Nation-State Law of 2018, would seem to indicate that the Haredim represent a significant portion of the population when it comes to maintaining Israel’s infamous ethnic balance between Jews and Arabs. 

Yet, many Israelis, specifically of the secular Jewish population, take issue with the way Haredi society functions.

For instance, Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been given an exemption from serving in the Israeli military – mandatory for all other Jewish citizens – since the time of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. 

As the Haredi Jewish population is hyper-fixated on their Jewish doctrinal practices and their young males are focused on studying at Yeshiva (Jewish religious school), their unemployment rates are the highest of any Israeli citizen group. So, when it comes to the Israeli economy and military, they are massive underperformers in the eyes of many Israeli Jews.

As a result of the Haredim’s population growth, they now harness greater power in the Israeli general elections and have found themselves at the center of the current Israeli coalition’s battle with their secular-leaning opposition. 

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Internal Conflict

Part of why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal system reforms, which sparked a mass protest movement from the beginning of 2023, were so controversial, is down to an Israeli internal conflict that was rooted in whether the State was going to retain its secular leanings or become a religious regime.

At this current moment, the coalition formed by Netanyahu, at the end of 2022, still stands, yet following the beginning of the war with Gaza, there was an ‘emergency war government’ formed, which included opposition figure Benny Gantz. 

Despite Gantz having stuck with the Israeli prime minister, in defiance of calls from some Israeli protesters for him to abandon the war government, he appears to have drawn a line at the enlistment of Ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military. 

Benny Gantz even boycotted a meeting convened on the issue, urging Netanyahu to enter real discussions on implementing a new status quo, this has led to the Israeli government postponing a cabinet discussion on the issue of Ultra-Orthodox enlistment. 

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As it stands, if no action is taken by the end of this month, Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students will be mandated to join the Israeli military, a prospect which has been met with calls from within the Haredi community to leave Israel altogether. 

What this also threatens is the breakdown of Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, which is held together by parties that support the consensus of the Haredim. 

This issue could potentially prove existential, if not in the immediate, most certainly in the future.

If the Haredim choose to leave the country altogether, or become such a powerful voting group, this could lead to massive social issues and even a threat to Israel’s “population balance”. 

Also, one third of the some 750,000 illegal Israeli West Bank settlers are Ultra-Orthodox Jews and will soon become – by far – the largest group of illegal settlers in the occupied territory.

If this issue is to be solved in the short term, it will still maintain long term problems, as the two largest groups amongst Israeli citizens could eventually become its Palestinian citizens and the Haredim; according to population growth rates. 

Both groups do not serve in the Israeli military and the Haredim greatly under-contribute to Israel’s overall economy. Either way, the Haredim are now posing a significant problem to the very essence of the Zionist project and the future visions for what Israel should represent as a State.

(The Palestine Chronicle)

– Robert Inlakesh is a journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. He focuses on the Middle East, specializing in Palestine. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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