Theocracy or Democracy?

Israel is at a crossroads. To the naked eye, Israel is a beacon of stability in a region historically characterized by turbulence and autocracy: its booming economy is increasingly globally integrated, and it is one of the only nations in the Middle East committed to democratic principles. Behind this robust exterior, however, is a state whose people are more divided than ever and the country’s relationship with diaspora Jews is reaching new lows.

A number of issues are responsible for Israel’s current predicament: the Occupation that in 2017 turned 50, the steady rise of housing prices in economic hubs like Haifa and Tel Aviv, and unease over the civil wars that have consumed one country after another in the region (including Israel’s next-door neighbor Syria), breeding terrorism and instability in their wake.

However, none of these problems are as salient in the minds of many Israelis and American Jews as the increasingly theocratic nature of the country. Under the current administration, the Ultra-Orthodox religious establishment has sought to cement its power through a series of legally binding measures, including the so-called “conversion bill” that would strip away recognition from those who chose to enter Judaism outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s official process. And under pressure from Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his promise to open a portion of the Western Wall to egalitarian prayer for men and women alike. But perhaps worst of all, Israeli policies have begun to turn openly homophobic, as a law passed this summer, again at the urging of the Haredim in the Knesset, prohibits surrogacy for single men, restricting the already limited number of alternative fertility options available, in a blatant attempt to make it harder for same-sex couples to conceive. And all this comes after the Israeli government declared two summers ago that no children adopted from Russia (currently the only foreign country Israelis adopt babies from) would go to “non-traditional” families in a move intended to satisfy Netanyahu’s friend and ally Vladimir Putin that received praise from the Ultra-Orthodox as well.

Meanwhile both political and religious leaders of the Ultra-Orthodox have grown bolder in asserting their longstanding claim to be the sole legitimate representatives of Judaism. In September 2017, Israel’s former chief rabbi and the current head rabbi of Jerusalem called Reform Jews worse than Holocaust deniers. Two months later, the head of Reform Judaism in the U.S., Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was beaten up by Ultra-Orthodox extremists and religious security officers just for trying to pray together with female faith leaders at the Western Wall. And just this past summer, a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi in Haifa was arrested for marrying couples without recognition from Chief Rabbinate under a new law that authorizes the arrest of anyone caught conducting weddings outside the authority of the Rabbinate. Perhaps most shockingly of all, after the horrific shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh by the white nationalist in October, Israel’s current Chief Rabbi, David Lau, refused to call the Tree of Life Congregation a “synagogue” because it wasn’t Orthodox. The sheer belligerence of the Rabbinate apparently knows no bounds, as they appear to provoke and even seek out conflict with liberal and secular Jews at every turn.

It was not always like this. At the outset of Israel’s founding, the Ultra-Orthodox represented a tiny minority in the Jewish State, roughly 400 families in a country of over 650,000 Jews, and they didn’t hold meaningful power in government for the first 30 years of the country’s existence. However, when Israel declared independence in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made the fateful decision to grant the Ultra-Orthodox a number of major concessions in order to both gain their support for the new state (most Orthodox and Hasidic Jews had been anti-Zionist before World War II) and help the community recover after the large-scale massacre of nearly all of Eastern Europe’s religious Jews during the Holocaust. As a result, the Ultra-Orthodox gained a permanent exception to the mandatory military service (alongside most Israeli Arab groups), guaranteed welfare for their families to enable the men to live out their lives studying Torah and Talmud instead of working, and control over all state-sanctioned Jewish functions, including marriages, funerals, and prayer at holy sites like the Western Wall. In a country with no secular civil law (each religious community has its own civil courts), the Ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish rituals is a real issue, as half the Jewish community identifies as secular or is in a liberal denomination (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Egalitarian Orthodox, etc) and these non-Orthodox Jews must often compromise their own theological and ideological principles simply in order to get married. Consequently, all interfaith and same-sex weddings must be performed outside the country (typically Cyprus) in order for the Israeli government to recognize the couples as married.

However, while the arrangement with the Ultra-Orthodox in the country has always been problematic, the issue is getting considerably worse now that the Ultra-Orthodox not only enjoy legal power but real political clout as well. In the current coalition, Ultra-Orthodox parties represent the swing vote, meaning that they always make or break the majority. As a result, PM Netanyahu has been forced to cave to their demands on issue after issue in order to keep his government in power. It was under pressure from these parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, that Netanyahu backed out of the compromise on the Western Wall as well as kept the provision in the surrogacy bill excluding same-sex couples. The latter prompted a protest by over a hundred thousand Israelis of all stripes in Tel Aviv this summer, as most Israelis consider LGBT rights integral to democracy. While a new coalition government may take power after the recently announced April 2019 elections that does not include Ultra-Orthodox parties (or gives them a sharply reduced role from their current position of prominence), such outcomes will become increasingly unlikely in the future as the Ultra-Orthodox and the only slightly-less radical "Nationalist Religious" population continue to grow while the number of secular and liberal Jewish Israelis remains relatively constant. Under 1 percent of the population when Israel was founded in 1948, the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) already make up more than 12 percent of the country thanks to an average birth rate of 6.7 children per family that shows little sign of declining in the near future. If Ultra-Orthodox and Nationalist-Religious Jews (currently counted as between 15 and 20 percent of the national population) grow to represent more than half of all Israeli Jews, as most estimates assume will take place within 40 years, then one must question whether Israel's democratic future is imperiled. Regardless of what happens on the highly publicized Palestinian front, the real threat to Israeli democracy may originate from within the state: from the growth and increasing power of communities with strong illiberal views.

It is now on both this issue as well as the Palestinian front that many Israelis and international observers believe it is too late. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and the celebrated historian Benny Morris have all expounded at length upon the unsustainability of the current status quo. In some form or another, each has said that Israel will either cease to be a democracy or cease to be a Jewish state in the future if the Occupation continues. For unless it successfully withdraws its military and half a million settlers from the West Bank, Israel will have to choose between permanently denying citizenship to a population under their control (undemocratic) or granting citizenship to millions of Palestinians and permanently eroding its Jewish majority. What is less well-known, however, is that many have reached similar conclusions about the growing power of the Haredim and the internal threat that it poses to Israeli democracy. The once-prominent Israeli journalist Ari Shavit noted in his seminal 2015 book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, that within five years from now, over 40 percent of Israel’s kindergarteners will be either Haredi or Arab (insert footnote), a clear demographic threat to the majority secular Jewish state that Theodor Herzl envisioned. As the birth rates of both Israeli Arabs (most of whom are devout Muslims) and Haredi Jews continue to significantly outpace those of secular Israelis, a number of whom leave the country to work in Europe or the United States anyways, Shavit predicts Israel’s liberal, democratic culture will dissipate and Tel Aviv (and possibly Haifa) will become islands of liberalism awash in seas of fundamentalism. And the famed Persian-American scholar of religion Reza Aslan issued a similar warning in an op-ed in CNN two years ago when he analogized the demographic growth and increasing political power of the Haredim in Israel to that of the fundamentalists in Iran in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution that established the brutal, conservative theocracy the country enjoys today.

Aslan and Shavit are just the tip of the iceberg. The late Amos Oz, one of Israel’s best known writers, dedicated his last book to the threat posed by internal and external fundamentalism to the nation’s future. Leading political scientist, Michael Walzer, author of the now classic text in political theory and international relations, Just and Unjust Wars, wrote a book in 2015 that sought to explain the rise of religious nationalism in Israel (as well as in India and Algeria) in spite of Zionism’s socialist origins and the 30 year reign of the secular Labor Party in national politics. And even the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that rarely features any reporting that could possibly be deemed critical of Israel, published a piece that outlined how a growing Haredi population is shifting the social dynamics of small and mid-size towns in Israel into spaces increasingly unwelcoming of secular Jews and tourists. Taking data directly from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (akin to our Bureau of Labor Statistics), the WSJ included a graphic that demonstrates the Haredi population is expected to reach almost 5 million by 2057 (see graphic below), not even 40 years away. At that point, Haredi Jews will make up over 35 percent of the country’s expected Jewish population and when this is added to the numbers of Nationalist-Religious Jews, the two groups together will account for more than than half the Jews in Israel.

But while the late Oz and the aging Morris and Shavit may be consigned to the belief that it’s simply too late to change Israel’s trajectory at this point, that, perhaps like the world and climate change, the problem has simply grown too insurmountable to tackle in time, I am not willing to accept this just yet. These changes are set to happen over the course of my lifetime. As a Jew who still very much believes that the existence of a liberal-democratic and Jewish State of Israel, in spite of its many flaws, is necessary to guarantee the security of not only Israeli Jews but the diaspora as well by serving as a perpetual haven whenever anti-Semitism arises, I remain hopeful that our 15-million strong community can find a way to preserve what many see as our people’s greatest collective triumph of the last 2000 years. I am not alone in this. Tal Keinan, an American-Israeli venture capitalist who recently spoke at Columbia, also thinks that saving a democratic and Jewish Israel is still possible. In his new book, God is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism, Keinan argues that Israel and the global Jewish community must undertake a series of reforms in order to repair the rift between Israel and the diaspora and check Ultra-Orthodox power in Israel. This would start with offering all Jews in and outside of Israel the chance to vote for Israel’s president, a step that albeit unlikely, Keinan admits, is necessary in his view to bring the two communities together. The Israeli president in turn would replace the Chief Rabbinate, Keinan explains, as the arbiter of Jewish authority by determining who counts as Jewish, what kinds of marriages can be performed in the country and recognized as Jewish, and which rabbis and what kinds of prayer at the holy sites will be accepted. While the rulings of successive presidents would undoubtedly fail to satisfy all parties, at least all Jews would have their voices heard in the process. Furthermore, instituting this now or in the near future, while the Ultra-Orthodox are a still minority among Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, would almost certainly mean that whoever was elected would moderate the stringency of official Judaism in Israel currently espoused by the Chief Rabbinate.

As creative as Keinan’s solution is, however, I don’t think it goes far enough. Aside from the practical difficulties of organizing an election amongst all Jews everywhere in the world and the questions this would raise about both eligibility and verifiability (as how would voters be expected to “prove” their Jewish identity?), the idea doesn’t prevent Ultra-Orthodox Jews from being able to dominate the faith (and perhaps the Israeli state) at some future point. Even if it gives liberal, secular, and other non-Orthodox and non-Haredi Jews more of a say right now, the Ultra-Orthodox are currently on track to double their population every 20 years in Israel and this could mean that by the end of the century they will not only control all official Jewish (and state-recognized) customs in the country (as they do now) but enjoy democratic legitimacy for this control as well. Besides, secular Jews (in and out of Israel) may be more likely to skip voting in such an election anyways, as matters of custom are likely to be of less concern to them than they are to fundamentalists in any faith. Thus, the Ultra-Orthodox may well represent a plurality if not an outright majority of voters in such elections decades before they actually become the majority and thereby gain control of the position even sooner. That is why any real solution to this issue must not only remove the Haredim’s stranglehold on religious authority in Israel but also work to integrate them into Israel’s otherwise flourishing society.

To permanently protect secular and liberal Judaism in Israel (as well as secular Christians and Muslims for that matter) and do something to mend the nation’s increasingly fractured relationship with Jews in the diaspora, the country must first and foremost adopt a secular civil code. Israelis who want to marry someone of the same sex or a different faith must not be required to leave the country to do it. Jews in the country should not have to prove their Halachically-certified origins to the Rabbinate to marry one another. These are infringements upon basic human rights. Genuine religious freedom doesn’t just require tolerating multiple religions or even treating them equally under the law, it means allowing people to choose their level of religious observance altogether, and forcing them to meet certain religious obligations or undergo even basic religious rituals in order to get married (or buried) and/or adopt children clearly violates this. In addition to ending these various prohibitions and logistical hang-ups, the establishment of a secular civil code in Israel, as we have in the U.S., would abolish forever the question of what forms of Judaism (or other religions) will be accepted as legitimate by the state because religion will become a private matter. Rabbis, ministers, and imams will simply need to be ordained in their denominations or communities rather than have to receive an authorizing license or permit from a state-run religious authority like the Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders outside Israel will no longer feel slighted that the state that calls itself the homeland or “nation-state” of all Jews doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of their denominations because the Israeli government would no longer play any role in designating or even recognizing religious authority. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious courts that currently govern all civil matters for their respective communities could be kept as options for those wishing to live under rules of the faith they identify with, but secular courts would also be established as open alternatives for any Israeli. This way even if Haredi or Orthodox Jews generally became a plurality in Israel, the institutions of the state would continue to protect Jews who don’t follow these traditions.

But the demographic side of the issue could also likely be mitigated if Israel undertook certain social reforms that would incentivize the Haredim to participate in society at large. First, Israel should abolish its public school system whereby students are segregated on the basis of religiosity and ethnicity. Even as many members of Israel’s Arab and Ultra-Orthodox communities have long insisted on separate school systems, these have served to alienate both groups from the secular Israeli mainstream. Ultra-Orthodox schools in particular are known to be quite low-quality as a result of the lack of basic education in “core subjects” like English, science, and math that are integral to attaining jobs in Israel’s increasingly hi-tech economy. Not only does the separate schooling isolate the communities from one another, but the lack of instruction provided to Ultra-Orthodox students, particularly boys, means that they are largely unable to find work, thereby depriving them of the financial viability to ever leave the confines of their highly-subsidized communities even if they want to.

Lastly, these subsidies constitute another part of the problem. It’s economically unsustainable for most of the male members of the fastest growing demographic to continue to enjoy state-funding to not work. While these subsidies should not simply be swept away overnight, they can be gradually reduced as Haredi men are retrained and boys in the community begin to receive better education. The withdrawal of subsidies is also likely to limit the number of children Haredi families have. Even as Haredi birth rates remain the highest of any group in Israel, they are substantially lower than they were decades ago and this is likely due in part to past cuts by Israel to the amount of money doled out by the government to Jewish families for each new child, a practice that disproportionately benefited Haredi families. Further reducing the subsidies that essentially allow Haredi men to be paid to pray as well as capping government benefits after three children are likely to lower the Haredi birth rate as well as ease Israeli taxpayers’ economic burden. Conversely, another way to offset the high Haredi birth rates could be to increase the amount of children non-Orthodox Israelis have. This could be achieved, or at least incentivized, by the passing of laws that would require companies (which mostly employ non-Haredi Jews) to offer more generous maternity and paternity leave packages and benefits. In Scandinavia, such tactics have been somewhat successful in reversing the declining fertility rates plaguing much of the developed world.

Ultimately, Israel will likely need to experiment with multiple approaches to solve the multi-tiered issue of the growth of the Ultra-Orthodox (in population and in power), but adopting at least some secular civil functions in areas like marriage, divorce, adoptions, and burials as well as integrating all Israelis into a strong unified public school system seem like obvious first steps. As long as Israelis and diaspora Jews remain innovative and committed, then Israel’s fate isn’t sealed yet.

Middle EastJosh Nacht