I should like to advance a conjecture which I lack the qualifications to adequately develop: The global Left, and the Israeli Left most of all, perceives that the clock is running out, and has worked itself up into a froth of hysteria against Israel. The world of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” where there are no countries and no religions, is about to dissipate like last night’s marijuana fumes. The demographic time bomb that worries the Left is not the relative increase of Arab vs. Jewish populations between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, speciously cited by John Kerry and a host of other errant utopians: it is the growth of the Jewish population itself, and Israel’s transformation into the world’s most religious country.
Israel now has a religious majority, as Times of Israel blogger Yoseif Bloch observes:
“According to our Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews are secular, 9% are haredi, and the remaining 48% are somewhere between masorti (traditional) and dati (religious): 23% the former, 10% the latter, and 15% smack in the middle. These five groups do not parallel the five groups identified by Pew, e.g. Orthodox is a denomination, while dati is a declaration.”
So 57% of Israelis practice a form of Judaism that for the most part Americans would call “Orthodox,” in that it recognizes normative Judaism in the rabbinic tradition (the presence of the “progressive” Reform and Conservative movements is almost imperceptible and largely limited to transplanted Americans). Many Israelis who are dati are far from completely observant, but there is a great gulf fixed between a semi-observant Jew who knows what observance is, and a “progressive” who asserts the right to reinvent tradition according to personal taste.
This majority seems to be expanding fast. I spent the second half of December in Jerusalem promoting the Hebrew translation of my book How Civilizations Die and was struck by the increase in commitment to religious observance, including among people who were steadfastly secular. Almost half of Israel’s army officers are “national religious” and trained in pre-army academies that teach Judaism, Jewish history, as well as physical training and military subjects. The ultra-Orthodox are going to work rather than studying full time, little by little, but the little adds up to a lot. Naftali Bennett’s national-religious party “Jewish Home” has created a new political focus for the national-religious. Outreach organizations like Beit Hillel are bringing once-secular Israelis back to observance. Beit Hillel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, was in New York recently lecturing about Israel’s religious revival.
Anecdotally, I see this in my own small circle of Israeli acquaintances. A musician friend told me that he attends a Talmud class every Shabbat — he can’t stand praying, but he is hungry for Torah. A journalist friend dresses her young boys in the tallit katan, the fringed undergarment of the very observant. It is becoming normal in Jerusalem restaurants to wash hands before bread and to recite the Grace after Meals.
This is a crucial, counterintuitive story: Israel is swimming against the secular current, becoming more observant as the rest of the world becomes more secular. Perhaps the explanation lies in the observation of the Catholic sociologist Mary Eberstadt, who argued in a brilliant 2007 essay that it is our children who bring us to faith. Last year Mary expanded the essay into a book which I had the honor to discuss in Claremont Review of Books. It is a commonplace of demographers’ correlation that people of faith have more children: Mary argues that the causality goes both ways, that having children reinforces our faith. Israeli is a standpoint in the modern world with a fertility rate of 3.0 children per woman (the closest second is the U.S. with just 1.9). Excluding the ultra-Orthodox the number is 2.6 children per woman, still outside the range of the rest of the industrial world. Secular Israelis are having three children. Not only does that defuse the much-touted “demographic time bomb.” It ultimately changes the character of the country. It validates the hundred-year-old argument of Rabbi Isaac Kook, one of the founders of religious Zionism, that identification with the Jewish people eventually will lead Jews back to Judaism.
This national religious revival is not occurring at the expense of Israeli or West Bank Arabs. On the contrary, the Arab population between the River and the Sea is flourishing as no modern Arab population ever did. A fifth of Israel’s medical students are Arab, as are a third of the students at the University of Haifa. Ariel University across the “Green Line” in Samaria, the “settler’s university,” is educating a whole generation of West Bank Arabs. The campus is full of young Arab women in headscarves, and the local Jewish leadership reaches out to Arab villages to recruit talented students. Israel’s expanding economy has a bottomless demand for young people of ability and ambition. The Left calls Israel an “apartheid state” the way it used to call America a “fascist state” back in the 1960s.