The Real Demographic Threat in Israel: Ultra-Orthodox taking over the Knesset

Anyone who reads this blog is almost certainly horrified by the violence, hatred and downright nastiness of the Ultra-Orthodox terrorists who are so cowardly that they are trying to intimidate the Dati Le’umi, Religious Zionist community by attacking their children going to school. But we need to recognize that because of the current system of government in Israel, nothing can happen while the Chareirdi, Ultra Orthodox have so much power in the Knesset because of their organizational skills and sheer numbers. Moreover, with their huge birthrate – thank God for more Jews! – they are going to have more influence in the years to come, not less.

So it is time to reconsider something that some of my Right wing friends are suggesting: Israel should annex – unilaterally if need be – the West Bank, Yehuda and Shomron, and give the 1.7 million Arabs living there the vote. That will throw off the demographic strenglehold of the Chareidi parties by shaking up the make-up of the Knesset. No doubt many of those Arabs will vote for the Leftist, more secular parties. In addition, to deal with the imbalance of Arab votes, Israel should open the gates to more Jew-ish people from Africa and South America and combine them with the Jew-ish people from the former FSU to build a fire-wall against the Chareidi Ultra-Orthodox parties. The Ultra-Orthodox will not embrace these Jews or quasi Jews from Nigeria and Unganda – in fact, the Conservative world has done more to reach out to them than anyone else. So we will have the perfect balance in Israel to recalibrate and minimize the power of the Ultra Orthodox world and restore Israel to the “status quo” that existed in the early decades of the State, when Shlomo Goren and much more tolerant and Zionist religious Jews dominated the Jewish scene. This is not a joke: Israel, in my mind, is suffering from forms of xenophobia that are keeping the United States back as well, when we compare it to the growth and success of Australia and Canada which have successfully allow immigrant populations to provide diversity and balance.

I welcome the conversation…

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

22 Responses to The Real Demographic Threat in Israel: Ultra-Orthodox taking over the Knesset

  1. Ivor Douglas says:

    Dear R. Lopatin,
    This is indeed an intriguing and disquieting view on the abysmal and decaying state of Israeli domestic politics and civil society. The demographic growth and reactionary political conscience of both Haredi and Israeli Arab populations, let alone Palestinians populations in the territories, compounds the already highly charged and conflict ridden situation. The foul behavior and persecution of Naama Margolese in Beth Shemesh is more than just a “schande for the Yidden” but a profoundly troubling insight on Haredi sectarian fundamentalism
    On the surface of it, your proposal is a most imaginative if somewhat unsound justification for a “One-State solution”; a bizarre inversion reminiscent of Gaddafi’s justification – but from another perspective.
    And indeed the premise of the proposal could be deemed both creative and progressive; were it not for the clearly stated intention of some in the hard right American Jewish and Israeli establishments (and their sympathizers in the “Christian Zionist” right) to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority and racially cleanse the territories of its Arab population. While many will deny that these reactionary (and frankly racist) forces would be anything but model co-citizens and benign rulers, recent events including the despicable “price-tag” attacks, suggest strongly the converse to be true. What likelihood is there of a free-and-fair vote for a proportional representation Knesset in a “one-state” where ethic intimidation of Jewish and Arab residents alike is endorsed (tacitly or actively) by their respective leaderships?
    Further, what likelihood would there ever be for international recognition of a multi-ethnic, Jewish minority state at the expense of a Palestinian state within its own secure borders that include the territories and Gaza? As elucidated by Jeremy Ben-Ami (A New Voice for Israel) “..the challenge that is facing Israel a choice among three things and it can only have two,..It can be a Jewish home, the national home of the Jewish people, it can be a democracy and/or it can have all the land that it wants between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. However, it can’t hang on to the West Bank and maintain at least a degree of control over Gaza and be both a Jewish home and a democracy.”
    Rather, than pandering to fundamentalist and reactionary pipe dreams of “some of our Right wing friends” it is imperative and incumbent on progressive minded Modern-Orthodox Jewish leaders – such as you – to embrace and actively promote an immediate reengagement and pursuit of a genuine and lasting “Two-state” solution – the only truly sustainable potential antidote to the societal decay and moral turpitude in which our beloved מדינת ישראל is deeply mired.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Hi Ivor,

      The most current demographic studies by Ambassador Yoram Ettinger affirm that the Jewish birthrate is closing in on the Arab birthrate. Without Gaza, but with the West Bank, the Holy Land would still be 67% Jewish, and with open immigration of Jewish identifying people from Africa and South America, that would go up to 70% or higher. We could have international monitors supervise the elections, and the beauty is that the new state could have substates in it – those mostly Arab – could even be called New Palestine, just like the State of New York or New Mexico – and the area in the Green Line could be called New Israel. The unified state could be called the Holy Land. But Jews could live anywhere in Hevron and Shechem or even Ramallah – if they can afford the real estate prices. There is no reason Israel, or the Holy Land cannot be both the Jewish homeland, the Jewish State, and something else as well.

      Time to think outside the box – we cannot afford not to!

      Asher Lopatin

      • Anonymous says:

        So at best, at very best, the Arab population is “only” 30%. A 30% minority population that may well be overwhelmingly hostile to the standing government, and the government’s declared desire to be a Jewish state, is simply not viable. No state can survive long term with that sort of hostility inbred into its citizens.
        The problem is, there is a huge chareidi community that is equally hostile towards the state of Israel, but far more successful at extorting money and other rights out of the government, despite their hostility.
        I don’t see an easy answer….but absorbing a large population that is profoundly hostile to the state in order to counteract another large population that is profoundly hostile to the state doesn’t seem like a promising direction to me.
        Michael Stein

  2. Maybe I’m mistaken but it seems your solution is to bring more extremism into the land to combat extremism. To me, I do not think this is the right idea. I will grant that it is a creative solution, but I am not sure I would trust the idea that Israel would counterbalance the 1.7 million with more Jews coming to Israel (not to mention that I cannot believe the rabbanut would be so marginalized as to accept those “Jewish” people of questionable stature in their eyes. A solution is needed, but I don’t think this is it.

  3. This is not the first time you’ve written an article proposing ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and turning it into a temporarily multiethnic one. Temporarily, because once the Arabs gain enough power they will bring in enough of their “brothers” to create a majority and then remove any Jewishness left by your incredibly naive idea. They will then subsequently remove the Jews that are left too.
    It is bizarre to follow your logic. On one hand the article raises concerns about the growing number of charidim. On the other hand you say “thank God for more Jews”?
    The answer to the demographic “threat” is not to hand over our state to our enemies who seek our destruction (whether you wish to see that or not) but for the non-Chareidim to have more babies. It is illogical for people to complain that the Chareidim are going to take over and then refuse to do the one thing they can do to grow the sane segment of the Jewish people and counter that threat.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      I agree that secular and Zionist religious Jews need to have more babies. Equally, Israel may want to work harder on educating Arab and Bedouin women so that first of all they can contribute more to society, but also so that their birthrates will go down.

      We can bring in as many Jewish identifiers as desired – millions over the years. I suggest having one day where anyone who identifies as a Jew, and is willing to have that on their passport and ID, is welcome. We will see, I am convinced, lines around the world. Israel can bring in as many as necessary to balance our other populations – and immigrants are good for a society. It will keep Israel creative and strong. And they will fight in the IDF.

      It doesn’t matter what the rabbanut does. People are getting married without the rabbanut, are being bar mitzvahed without the rabbanut, and are being buried without the rabbanut. Non-Jewish Former Soviet Union people are counted by demographers with the Jewish population. So the hundreds of thousands – or millions – from Uganda and Nigeria that Israel can bring in as citizens will be counted in that number as well. They will not put up with some Ultra Orthodox spitting on them: they will fight back – even their 8 year olds!!

      The bottom line: diversity, immigration and a mixed society is good.

      Rabbi Asher Lopatin

  4. Canuck says:

    Do you really want to swamp the state of Israel with millions of pseudo-Jews, where they will intermarry with Jews without having properly converted? We have already had several disastrous schisms in Jewish history. We certainly don’t need another one.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      These Jewish identifiers who will not (yet) be halachically Jewish will be absorbed into the majority Jewish culture of Israel, which is made up of 5.5 million Jews. Yes, we will need a rabbanut – or a privatized rabbinic system – that would welcome them to traditional Judaism, but even today’s Phillipino population in Israel do Chanukah etc. In America and Europe, we Jews are a minority. In Israel, we have the power to acculturate by being the majority culture. Rav Goren zt”l understood this in his lenient attitude towards conversions in Israel vs strictness outside of Israel.

      I welcone diversity and new influences on Yiddishkeit. Judaism doesn’t have to be pasty white Ashkenaz fulfill the Brit Horev, the covenant of Sinai.

      Asher Lopatin

      • Yes, yes, we tried this with the Russians and now there’s a record number of churches in Israel.
        The ultimate goal, in case you’ve forgotten, is a Jewish state in which people live Jewish lives, not a multicultural state that happens to have a majority of Jews. I can go to Brandeis if I want to see that.

      • Asher Lopatin says:

        If the rabbanut – and rabbis and community leaders in general – would have done more to welcome the non-halachically Jewish Jews, they would have been integrated much faster. In any case, over the generations they will be absorbed by the Jewish culture. But they will also add to that culture and make it richer. The pure Ashkenazim and Sefaradim may resist those additions, but they are natural, healthy and critical for the unfolding of Judaism and Torah, which are eternal, and not limited to the minhagim of any specific group of Jews.

  5. Canuck says:

    Israel is already a diverse society, and Jews are already quite diverse. Also, the power of the Chareidi parties is exaggerated; after all, they constitute under ten percent of the population. Israelis are not eager to bring in masses of non-Jewish immigrants, and certainly not as a wedge to use against the Chareidi political parties. Most Israeli Jews typically respect Judaism enough to reject attempts at tampering with halachic conversion – which ensures our unity as a nation.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the Chareidi world accepts “halachic” rabbanut conversions. Anecdotally I know of several cases where “halachic” conversions, accepted by the rabbanut, had to be done to meet the standards of a specific community. And, frankly, I don’t think that is so bad. Rabbi Doniel Hartman has the idea that everyone who gets married, no matter what their lineage is, should do a giyyur lechumra – jumping into the mikvah in front of three rabbis just in case. This would even the playing field, and could also be halachically justified even for Kohanim.

  6. Canuck says:

    You use the term “non-halachically Jewish Jews”, but isn’t that term meaningless, since one is either a Jew or one isn’t? How were the rabbis unwelcoming towards non-Jews in Israel? You also write that non-Jewish immigrants will be absorbed by the Jewish culture. But, as Garnel Ironheart pointed out, many of those immigrants worship in churches, and eat non-kosher food which they make available to Israeli Jews. As you know, Jews in the diaspora are largely assimilating out of Judaism. So, why suggest an idea for Israel that would result in the assimilation of Israeli Jews, simply to satisfy a desire for more cultural and ethnic diversity, and to use as a political wedge against the Chareidi political parties?

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Wrong! There is an important category of “yatza miklal akum/goy” which means that a person can be on a journey to full halachic Jewish status. People in this pre-conversion category have been allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries – a Munkatcher cemetery no less! – and Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, and Rav Soloveichik (Rav Yosef Dov and Rav Ahron) allowed for patrilinial kids to be part of Jewish day schools. Yes, you can be a Jew but not have the halachic status of Jew.

      When I lived in Israel in the ’70’s people were complaining about all the “white meat” – pork – that was available. We have to show every Israeli the beauty of kashrut, and make it feasible for people, and I am confident we will win them over – even the Russians. All those Hallal eaters from the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem are fressing every day at the kosher food court the Kanyon Malcha in the heart of Jerusalem (everything in the Kanyon is kosher).

  7. Adam Frank says:

    Rav Asher,

    Since electoral reform in Israel that would require a higher percentage of the total vote in order to earn representation in the Knesset would diffuse and even eliminate the political power of the Ultra Orthodox — is it correct to say that your preference is the One-state solution that you describe?

    Were Likud, Kadima and Labor — whose leadership holds not so disparate opinions re security issues — to create a coalition government and implement electoral reform that eliminated the chance for small parties to represented in national elections (like the U.S. today), then the problem that inspired your position is eliminated. Would you still want an annexed West Bank?

  8. Adam Frank says:

    Rav Asher,

    I would like your opinion regarding the “Retooling of Halakhic Conversion” presented in this recent Ha’aretz Oped:

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Thanks, Rav Adam, and yesherkoach on your article. I hope people open it up and take it seriously. The short answer, is that I basically agree with you, but by using an Orthodox approach, where we actually don’t have to change any halacha: we can follow existing halachot, dating all the way back through the modern, medieval and ancient authorities, to show that conversions in Israel require different standards. The great halachic and Zionist leader, Rav Shlomo Goren, applied this principle. In addition, there is a well-established category of “yatza michlal goy” – that a person can indicate that they are part of our People, and not part of the gentile world, in many ways beside mere acceptance of the yoke of mitzvoth. Certainly serving in the army would be one of them, but perhaps even migrating to Israel would indicate that. This category does not halachically allow the “non-gentile” to marry a Jew, but it would trigger, I would argue, much more lenient and welcoming standards for a full conversion. Lots to talk about, but I think both a traditional Orthodox halachic approach can and should arrive at the conclusions your more scholarly and academic approach takes us. And the fact that your Torah comes from “Tzion” gives it a lot of weight!

      Shabbat shalom and Shavua tov,

      Asher Lopatin

      • Canuck says:

        Perhaps you were thinking about former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who supported lenient conversions standards in special circumstances. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in the Langer case decision, went so far as to declare an orthodox conversion invalid due to lax observance in public.

      • Asher Lopatin says:

        I am aware of Rav Uziel’s leniencies. However, Rav Goren is also known for his leniencies specifically because he was approving the conversion of people living in Israel, in a Jewish society. To quote Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, “Another relevant issue is that the State of Israel has revived the earlier historical situation whereby someone coming from the outside into a Jewish community could be considered Jewish by absorption. This was behind the lenience of the late Chief Rabbi Goren in believing that converts in Israel would be influenced automatically by living in a Jewish State. Therefore he made it a policy of being supportive and lenient with potential converts who were going to live in Israel. Many Orthodox rabbis disagreed with his position and thought that he was being taken advantage of.”

  9. Rav Lopatin,

    You seem certain of the true values of Torah being able to conquer the masses of tangential Jews you wish to bring in, but why not aim your ideas more simply at the Hareidim themselves? Are they not even more capable of appreciating true Torah values? I am intimately involved in the issues transpiring in Beit Shemesh and I have significant contacts in Hareidi spheres. There are two important trends now transpiring, both of which are natural. The first, and most natural is the impending passing of the “Gedolim” who lead these communities. Their waning power has also waned the power of their “heirs.” At the same time, there is a natural tendency among the populace to integrate withe the society that surrounds them. More are enlisting in the army, looking for professional training and seeking ways (such as Zaka) to interact MORE with their secular brethren (they pretty much see Modern Orthodox as secular, anyway). Of course to each action their is an opposite reaction. The emergence of the Sikrikim and the increasingly exclusionary rulings of the “Gedolim” are meant to counteract the integration which is perceived as both a blow to their influence, as well as a mortal danger to their way of life. As one Hareidi put it to me quite bluntly, “Do you know of any Hesder Yeshiva students who dropped religion in the army? If so, even one, why should any Hareidi risk their son enlisting? Why take a chance at ruining the most crucial thing in your life – continuity of tradition?” Thus, the Rabbis work to scare Hareidim from integrating out and the Sikrikim scare the general public from wanting to have anything to do with hareidim, to prevent integration in. However, these trends can be reversed, as you suggest by (a) waiting for R’ Elyashiv and R’ Yosef to rest with their fathers – saying “Ad 120” is not waiting that long and (b) using the transitionary phase, when all regimes, even democracies like Israel or the USA, are their weakest, to make inroads in to offering Hareidim a way to integrate (such as eliminating all “ceremonial” IDF practices whether Men, Women or Goats are going to be singing). I believe it will be easier than most people expect.

    Furthermore, while the disgusting spitter called the young girl a “Prutza” you are going one step further by making her into a “Pilegesh” whose figure has been sent across Israel in a rallying cry to civil war and purging evil from our midst. In these days there is no King in Israel, by each man all that is just in his eyes will be done.

  10. leorahyman says:

    I’m all for annexing Judea and Samaria. Please stop calling it the West Bank.
    All the best.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps… just PERHAPS… instead of talking and talking and talking about it, you should consider actually MOVING here to help us gain a foothold!

    All I hear is talk, talk, talk… NO action. Sure, you speak about action. You speak about how you PLAN to take action. You even speak about one day moving here to take action.

    Yet, all the while, you’re still in Chutz L’Aretz talking.

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