Last Friday evening, over a long dinner at the Chabad House in Tokyo (not that shabbat dinners there are ever short), I had a chat with two friends who are local but are also ex- (and future?) Israelis. The conversation, as is the case whenever two or more Israelis sit down together, quickly turned into solving Israel’s problems. After we solved the Iranian issue and the Obama-settlement issue, we turned to the face of Israeli society in the future.
I brought up the issue by stating the fact that in a couple of decades (assuming Israel is still around), the majority of 20-year-old Israelis will be either Arab or Ultra-Orthodox.
Here are the numbers for Jewish pupils in primary schools (from Statistical Abstract of Israel, rounded):
|Year||State Non-Religious||State Religious||Ultra Orthodox|
In other words, more than a quarter of all primary school Jewish pupils are in the Ultra-Orthodox education system, compared with only 6% thirty years ago. The number for Grade 1 pupils is obviously higher: about a third of the pupils entering the school system this year were Ultra-Orthodox. (For those not familiar with the Israeli system, these schools are recognised and funded by the State, but they set their own curriculum, which in the vast majority of cases – especially for boys – does not include any secular studies and does not culminate in any official diploma). Incidentally, the decline in State Religious schools attendance is also interesting (and something I have strong opinions about), but I won’t go there right now.
Regarding the Arab sector, the percentage of primary school pupils for 2008, from the total, was approximately 27%. In nominal terms, there were about 235,000 Arab primary school pupils in 2008, compared to about 160,000 Ultra-Orthodox pupils.
The trend is clear. Barring some unforeseen demographic event, similar in size to the immigration wave from the ex-Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the face of Israeli society will change dramatically in a couple of decades. Most people finishing school will – under present conditions – not be doing military service. More significantly, a large proportion of these graduates (most of the Ultra-Orthodox ones for certain) will not be joining the work force. Countries like Japan are facing a work force crisis due to the low birth rate; Israel has a high birth rate, but in the “wrong” sectors of society.
In my opinion, this is by far the single biggest challenge facing Israel’s future. This will no longer be the Israel we know, governed by a secular elite with (more or less) Western values and standards. Certain aspects of life in Israel will change dramatically, with consequences that cannot be predicted with any reliable degree of accuracy.
Unfortunately, we were not able to solve this particular issue around the shabbat table in Tokyo. Perhaps the hour was too late.