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Who are Israel’s secular and will they yield to the ultra-Orthodox?

A man rides his bicycle and others walk at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, December 8, 2022. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

It’s so easy to put the people of Israel into two categories – ultra-Orthodox or secular, but to do so constitutes a great inaccuracy because there is more than meets the eye – at least where “the secular” are concerned. 

In a recent article entitled “Support overwhelming for Shabbat transportation, those were the two cubicles that Israel’s estimated 9.8 million population were thrust into, expressly painting the conflict between the two groups.

Yet, Israel is a bit more complex than that, when it comes to the tapestry of different faiths, as well as how beliefs connected to those faiths impact the everyday lives of people, who are usually driven by those convictions.

In January, the Times of Israel reported that Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are the fastest-growing population in Israel but, at the moment, they only make up 1.28 million people, 13.5% of the population. 

At the end of 2022, the population was divided as follows: 73.6% Jewish, 18.1% Muslim, 1.9% Christian and 1.6% Druze. The remaining 4.8% are other lesser-known faiths, among which are also Messianic Jews, which some estimate to be about 20,000 in the entire country. However, because most Messianic Jews are only known as "regular" Jews in the population registrar, most of these are likely included in the 73.6% of Jews.

It is that 73.6%, however, that is most interesting and worth dissecting because they are far from a monolithic block. Among them are traditional Jews, who observe Shabbat and the holidays, the more modern religious Jews, many of whom are affiliated and, therefore, more observant. Then, there are those who have no religious affiliation or identification whatsoever. Those are the true seculars, as we’ve come to commonly define that word – those whose emphasis is more based on a cultural than a religious connection.  

It's probably fair to say that greater than half of that 73.6% Jewish-born bloc, does, indeed, want Israel to reflect Jewish values, such as Shabbat being a day of rest. The vast majority of them also take part in the traditional Friday night Shabbat dinner, light Chanukah candles, have bar/bat mitzvahs for their children and have a Jewish wedding, under a chupa (canopy), conducted by a recognized rabbi in Israel. Nearly all circumcise their sons. These, for the most part, remain the accepted traditions and culture of those who are defined as secular.  

Their desire is to identify as Israeli Jews, who love their country, culture and even some religious elements but who also greatly value the idea of allowing everyone to have the freedom to choose what works for them and their families. They are loath to tell others how to live or make those choices for them.  

While Israel’s minority non-Jewish population cannot be counted in that 73.6%, they, too, are among those who value the freedom to live as they see fit, within the confines of the law, and so they also have much to gain by Israel remaining a predominantly Jewish society, but one which makes room for the diversity of other groups.

Many of them are also religiously observant, within their respective faiths, but see themselves as part of the fabric of the homeland and live a relatively high standard of life in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries. They enjoy the fruits of our educational system and have, consequently, been able to carve out respected professions and rise to high places of influence.

Together with their numbers, it’s easy to see why the so-called “secular” population of Israel accounts for the largest bloc, and the reason so many are personally vested in making sure that democracy and free choice, as it relates to our Israeli law and any future constitution, are protected.

This composite majority does not relate in any way to the 1.28 million Haredi bloc, a group that lives according to their rules and ethics, kind of in their own bubble. They neither mix with the outside world nor expose themselves to modern society in their effort not to be tainted by its evils. 

And so, while it is predicted that they will grow exponentially each year, even to the point of one day surpassing the majority, the divide, which they represent, is simply too great for these other people groups to bridge. It’s important to remember that there will never be any meeting in the middle for the ultra-religious, who don’t believe in compromise or inclusion of others.  

So where does that leave the country, that until nine months ago, was headed in a certain direction but is now being pulled back in order to, not just accommodate this 1.28 million Haredi bloc, but actually give them the dominant voice? Their voice could potentially determine the course of the type of education our children receive, the turning over of more power and authority to their religious and political leaders – not to mention what will be required, in the future, in order to be an accepted part of this very private club. 

It may very well be this diversified mixture, of the secular, whose persistence has lasted these many months, has forced the strong arm of the government to capitulate once and for all, realizing that, for now, we represent too many who simply will not yield. Because it is actually the democratic society, which recognizes our rights and freedoms, that has been the driving factor which has attracted growth and prosperity to come to our shores. So why would we yield those things for the sake of a bloc that doesn’t even value them?

Within each society, there are always smaller enclaves of the population who choose to remain insulated and apart from the rest. This is true of the Amish in the U.S. While this is their prerogative, they luckily do not have an unrealistic expectation that all 331.9 million of America’s citizens must somehow live without electricity or ride in horse-driven carriages, as they have chosen. 

Likewise, it’s time for the bubble-wrap community of the Haredim to adjust their expectations of Israel’s very large and diverse secular majority. They need to start being realistic and abandon what is, more and more, becoming a losing, uphill battle for them. Because we kind of like things the way they were and will do whatever it takes to keep them that way.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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