Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Problem

by Carlos Gomez

Beneath the emergency room of the Barzilai Medical Center in Israel lie graves holding bones that date back to the Byzantine era. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who oppose disturbing any burial sites, have successfully demanded that the emergency room be moved. The projected additional cost of this relocation is over 135 million shekels, or about $36 million. One of several projects ultra-Orthodox Jews have lobbied the Israeli government to fund based on their religious beliefs, the Barzilai Medical Center is unlikely to be the last. Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox community is causing problems of increasing magnitude for the country’s economy, military, and government.

Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO and founder of the Hiddush organization for religious freedom and equality in Israel, insists that ultra-Orthodox schools “deny [students] a real education and keep them ignorant” so that they “can’t assimilate into the larger society.” Ultra-Orthodox schools reject the core curriculum of general studies required by the Ministry of Education: Elementary schools privilege religion over basic subjects like math and Hebrew and prefer to focus mainly on religious studies; secondary schools focus exclusively on religion. Students in these schools don’t learn science, English, civics, or advanced math, and many don’t even learn adequate Hebrew, since their families consider Hebrew a holy tongue and believe that laymen should speak Yiddish.

In recent years, the number of students enrolled in ultra-Orthodox schools has increased dramatically, signaling a precipitous rise in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox people in Israel. In the 2006 census, only about eight percent of Israelis were ultra-Orthodox, but approximately 25 percent of first graders were enrolled in Yeshiva schools. This impending increase in the ultra-Orthodox population will drain Israel’s economy. Though there is no rule prohibiting the ultra-Orthodox from entering the work force, almost two-thirds do not do so. Statistics show that more than half the ultra-Orthodox population lives below the poverty line. Many, including Rabbi Regev, believe that ultra-Orthodox schools focus on religion keeps students from being able to assimilate into the working world, dooming them to a life of destitution. “There is no way that they can pull out of poverty without working and there’s no way to integrate into the workplace unless they introduce subjects like English, math, and sciences,” Regev said. “They just don’t have the skills.”

The large number of children born to ultra-Orthodox families only exacerbates the situation. Most families reject birth control and interpret the Biblical commandment to ‘go forth and multiply’ literally, having on average 8-10 children. The ultra-Orthodox population increases by seven percent annually, which explains the increase in Yeshiva students. Such large families have drained child support funds, and, according to data collected by Hiddush, each year ultra-Orthodox cost the government 5 to 15 billion shekels ($1.3-3.9 billion) by not participating in the work force.

In addition, conscription for the military will be severely hampered by the increase in the ultra-Orthodox. The Chazon-Ish Agreement, signed in 1948, exempts all Yeshiva students from serving in the armed forces. Ten years ago, exemptions for religious reasons from the military stood at seven percent; in ten years Israel may face an exemption rate of 25 percent. Like joining the work force, there is no tenet of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that prohibits participation in the armed forces, but most members of this community do not do so.

In a recent poll by Hiddush, 68 percent of Israeli citizens supported reducing government subsidies for Yeshiva schools and large families and 85 percent oppose the exemption of Yeshiva students from the military. The move, they argue, would induce the ultra-Orthodox to enter the work force and contribute to a functioning Israeli society. despite the rampant public disapproval, however, the government has announced no plans to change its policies.

Low ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce and in the Israel defense Forces is draining Israel’s economy and undermining the strength of its army. Unless the ultra-Orthodox rethink their approach, or the government changes its policies, the demands of a religious minority will continue to hamper the majority of Israeli citizens.

Carlos Gomez’13 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at