The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the demographics of the Jewish people (and of the entire world) is evident on several levels, including a decrease in birth rates and an increase in mortality rates. These trends could have a long-term impact on the size of Diaspora Jewish communities in particular, as these communities had higher average ages and lower birthrates to begin with. At the same time, immigration to Israel has rebounded, after coming to a halt during the Covid-19 years, a trend intensified by the war in Ukraine, which has added several tens of thousands of olim to the regular total. The share of the ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish population on the rise, but the challenges emerging due to this trend, and their impact on relations between different Jewish communities, have not yet received adequate attention. For this reason, the needle of the demography gauge has been moved in a slightly negative direction.
Trends and Recommendations
An effort should be made to retain the immigrants from Ukraine in Israel, along with family members who have been left behind, and to also encourage immigration from Russia
Explanation: The war in Ukraine caused a major refugee crisis, which Israel is involved in addressing; a minority of the refugees are not Jewish, while most are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and are being absorbed as olim.10 These refugees came to Israel out of immediate necessity, without planning such a move in advance; if and when the war in Ukraine ends (and depending on its outcomes), they will consider whether to return to their homes or choose Israel as their long-term home.
Additionally, a significant number of the refugees-immigrants have left family members behind (males of conscription age in particular); they, too, will have to decide when the war ends whether to return the émigré family to the home they left, or to join their relatives in Israel. Under these circumstances, the absorption and rapid integration of these olim is of special and urgent importance; it is imperative that they feel “at home” in Israel even before they reach a crossroads where they will have to decide which direction to take. At the same time, Israel should, with appropriate caution, encourage immigration from Russia, where the economic, political, and social situation is also deteriorating due to the war.
A comprehensive social and political response should be formulated to an anticipated increase in the number of Israelis who belong to the Jewish majority population but are not recognized as Jews
Explanation: There is a gap between the Orthodox establishment’s demand for conversion according to its conception, and the attitude of most Israeli Jews, for whom conversion is either: 1) entirely unnecessary (because self-definition is enough); 2) essential but not necessarily via an Orthodox rabbi; 3) essential and should be accomplished via an Orthodox beit din (religious court) that adopts lenient halachic tests. This gap has implications on several levels. First, there is an impact on the public’s relations with the conversion establishment, which is perceived as imposing the system of the minority on the majority.
Second, the gap affects willingness of Israelis to convert. The measures currently underway to change the conversion system may be important in and of themselves (as a means of weakening the conversion monopoly), but it is doubtful whether they will bring about a major jump in the number of conversions. Under these circumstances, several developments should be taken into account. The first is the major and continued increase in the share of Jews who do not marry officially (because they cannot do so through the Rabbinate, which is the sole permitted avenue for marriage). The second is growing pressure, perhaps to the point of decisiveness, to institute civil marriage so that couples whom the Rabbinate does not recognize as Jews can marry.
The third development is an anticipated rise in the number of families who see themselves as “Jewish” but whom certain sectors will regard as “non-Jewish” or “mixed,” which will heighten already-existing tensions stemming from claims of inclusion and exclusion based on the controversial question: “Who is a Jew?” Under these circumstances, halachic pluralism in the conversion sphere may not be the optimal solution to all of the problems, but it is the most realistic option available for implementation.
Continued rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox community requires both intra- and extra-sectoral attention to the socioeconomic ramifications of this trend
Explanation: It has long been known that the share of the ultra-Orthodox within the Jewish population is rapidly increasing. This year, several reports and forecasts addressed the issue, noting that a decade and a half from now, one out of every four Jews around the world will be Haredi.11 This trend poses a challenge to the ultra-Orthodox communities, which will have to reconsider their policy as communities with an ethos founded on a minority consciousness (which will soon be irrelevant). It also poses a challenge to non-Haredi Jewish communities, which need to consider how they ought to respond to this trend. From an economic perspective it is clear that this challenge must be addressed as soon as possible (Israel won’t be able to flourish if the economic contribution of a significant community within it is relatively small). From a socioeconomic perspective, the challenge is no less meaningful. Data gathered this year indicate the degree to which non-Haredi Israelis feel alienated from the Haredi community.12 The ultra-Orthodox community’s growing dominance could exacerbate societal tensions, and/or bring about gradual change in the character and composition of Israeli society, manifesting in a regression in education and employment levels. Under these circumstances, it is worth remembering that public policy has great power to influence the ultra-Orthodox public, and that the government has a duty to use that power wisely, but also continuously and determinedly, with attention to the sector’s unique characteristics, but also to the general needs of the State of Israel.