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Orthodox Jews are blamed for Israel's 'Titanic' moment, but the Palestinians will pay the price

September 20, 2019 at 8:00 pm

Leader of the Blue and White political alliance, former chief of staff of the Israeli army, Benny Gantz (L) and Revital Gantz (R) cast their votes during the Israeli legislative elections, at a polling station in Rosh Haayin district of Tel Aviv, Israel on 17 September 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh – Anadolu Agency]

The fall of the Zionist State of Israel is being forecast by a leading Israeli academic, but his prediction has nothing to do with the latest election crisis which has left the state divided and fragile. While likening Israel to the ill-fated Titanic, Professor Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University blames the brain drain and growth of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities for the predicted downfall.

Israel, believes Ben-David, could cease to exist in a couple of generations. He blames Jews rather than Palestinians for the demise of the Zionist project, which he believes is “unsustainable” on its present path. The economic professor made his views known in a Hebrew-language article written a few days ahead of the General Election held last Tuesday.

For decades, Israelis have been told that the existential threat to their state’s long term survival comes from the millions of Palestinian refugees who are demanding the right to return to their land from which their families were driven at gunpoint in 1948, as well as those resisting the brutal occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today. Even the newly empowered Palestinian citizens of Israel, who probably cost Benjamin Netanyahu his power base with their votes this week, are regarded by some as the enemy within, while neighbouring countries such as Iran are also presented as a constant menace.

However, according to Ben-David, the biggest threat to Israel comes from Israelis themselves with the ongoing brain drain and exodus combined with the growth of the religious far right within the illegal settlements and beyond. Under Netanyahu’s premiership, more than 600,000 illegal settlers have thrived, with his overtures to the Orthodox Jews living there including pledges to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and settlements in the rest of the occupied West Bank.

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Not only has Netanyahu’s desperate promises to win votes contradicted international law and killed off any hopes of a two-state solution by leaving Palestinians completely surrounded and trapped in isolated enclaves, but Professor Ben-David also accuses him and other politicians of ignoring the real threat to the future survival of Israel. Expanding on his thoughts published in an interview with the Times of Israel earlier this year, Ben-David warned Israeli media that the state cannot remain viable if the quality of education remains “third-world” in the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] communities — Israel’s fastest growing population group — where core subjects like maths, science and English are regarded with little enthusiasm, if they are taught at all.

“You can say anything you want about corruption and other problems,” he explained. “I’m not dismissing them. But fundamentally whether we continue to exist as a country or not depends on our ability to sustain a first-world economy, because otherwise we won’t be able to defend ourselves in the most violent neighbourhood on the planet.”

His views are being taken seriously by the likes of Rabbi Michael Boyden who was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London. Rabbi Boyden, who has established Reform Jewish congregations in Ra’anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement’s Beit Din, echoed such views in a recent blog entitled “The Haredim could destroy Israel”.

“Once upon a time the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) were a sideshow in Israeli society,” wrote Boyden. “Visitors to our country would wander through the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim and buy quaint Haredi dolls complete with their capotes (long black coats), shtreimals (fur hats) and tzitzis (fringes). Their presence in Fiddler on the Roof brought back memories of the shtetl and a world that was no more. However, the reality on the ground in Israel today doesn’t evoke nostalgia, but rather threatens the very survival of our country.”

Based on demographic predictions that around 49 per cent of Israeli children will be ultra-Orthodox Jews within two generations, Ben-David’s earlier article provided the analogy that the people of Israel “are basically like passengers on a luxury liner.” Israel, he pointed out, is a developed country and we’re always arguing about placement of the deck chairs. “But the Titanic was a luxury liner and just like with the Titanic there’s this huge iceberg ahead of us. if we don’t stop arguing about who’s sitting in which chair on the deck and start focusing on that iceberg, then those who can will be on the life raft getting out of here and the rest of the country will slam right into that iceberg.” That iceberg, he suggested, is Israel’s neighbours.

“If you want the ultimate analogy here, it was Holocaust Day a few days ago. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Do you know how many Jews live in Israel today? Six million. That’s the group that’s in danger if we don’t get our act together in Israel today while we still can.”

Whoever wins Israel’s election, Palestinians know it will make no difference

With Israel just holding another inconclusive General Election, Ben-David’s warning about “the future of Israel” still rings true. “If it means giving Netanyahu a get-out-of-jail free card just so that the two largest parties can come together and fix the future, then do it. It stinks to high heaven but it’s a small price to pay.”

No doubt the irony will not be lost on Palestinians whose daily existence is threatened by the violent actions of illegal Jewish settlers — Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox alike — and Israel’s military occupation. Not only has Netanyahu pandered to the groups that threaten to wipe Palestine off the map, but so have the other main candidates in the election. Now that at least one prominent Israeli academic is warning that the same ultra-Orthodox community from which these right-wing politicians draw a lot of their support is now posing the biggest ever threat to the survival of the Zionist state, it makes me wonder how Netanyahu, Gantz and their cronies are going to square the circle. No doubt some vastly disproportionate violence against the people of Gaza will have a part to play in their twisted logic somewhere along the line.

Nothing seems to unite Israeli voters like the promise of even more killing of their Palestinian neighbours and the continued destruction of their homes, schools and medical facilities. It does “stink to high heaven”, Prof. Ben-David, but it won’t be Israeli Jews paying the price, it will be the people of occupied Palestine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.