The ultra-orthodox religious Jews in Israel are posing a serious demographic challenge to Israeli society. In my Israeli Society in 2030 blog post, I pointed out the troubling statistics of children starting school this year, and the possible effects on life in Israel in a couple of decades.
The trouble does not end with the proclivity of religious Jews to “go forth and multiply”. The ultra-orthodox religious establishment, mainly the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts, is also fighting a bitter war against conversions to Judaism (giyur). By adopting the most extreme interpretation of the conditions necessary to bring a non-Jew into the fold, they set the bar impossibly high. They insist that committing to maintain a religious way of life after the conversion – something that the vast majority of Jews do not do themselves – is a pre-requisite for the conversion process to start.
The most evident win of the ultra-orthodox in this war is the repudiation of the state-sponsored giyurim granted by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. This led to the resignation/firing of R. Druckman and to sharp drop in the number of conversions. Data published today shows that in 2009 there was a 12% drop in giyurim, after a 27% drop in 2008. Only 4,206 people converted to Judaism in Israel in 2009, and of these less than 1,000 belonged the group labelled as “religion-less”. This group, mostly composed of ex-Soviet Union emigres, is estimated at 300,000 people (some put the number much higher). The rate of conversion is but a drop in the ocean.
By blocking the way for Israeli citizens to convert to Judaism, the ultra-orthodox are exacerbating the demographic threat. Most of the potential converts are secular people, so by keeping them out of “the tribe”, the relative number of ultra-religious Jews is higher. Faced with the specter of a society composed of 30-40% ultra-orthodox Jews, most of which currently do not serve in the military and are not legally part of the workforce, it is no wonder that Lieberman, and now Netanyahu, are promoting crazy ideas like allowing Israelis abroad to vote in parliamentary elections.
As I wrote previously, this two-pronged threat is the single biggest challenge facing Israel’s future.