Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is equipped to redefine the country's politics and set a new agenda now that many of the Haredim have joined with right-wing religious Zionists to become a powerful political force, Patrick Martin writes in his weekend Globe essay.
"No longer are they the inward-looking anti-Zionists who only cared that the government provide them with money for their separate schools, welfare and exemptions from military service," Mr Martin writes. "...Two decades ago, they were confined mostly to a few neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today, they have spread throughout the country, in substantial numbers in several major communities, as well as building completely new towns only for their followers."
Of the Jewish Israeli children entering primary school for the first time this month, more than 25 per cent are Haredi. There are between 600,000 and 700,000 Haredim in Israel, and they average 8.8 children a family. A decade ago, there were almost no Haredim in the West Bank settlements. Today, the two largest settlements are entirely ultra-Orthodox, and the Haredim are about a third of the almost 300,000 settlers.
"Now that they have tightened the rules on who can be a Jew and have forced the public bus company to provide gender-segregated buses in many communities, a discouraged secular community is starting to emigrate," Mr. Martin writes.
There is a fear that the country is risking destruction, pushed by the increasing rupture between the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities that is, as one political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper wrote this summer, a struggle between two contradictory worldviews that cannot exist side by side.
Mr, Martin says the country faces a serious question: will it adhere to its founding secular values or become a theocratic Jewish state?
"With the demographic shift in favour of the Haredim only going up, those in the private sector, government and the military who decline to accommodate Haredi demands will become fewer and fewer," Mr. Martin argues. "And with growing numbers of Haredim in West Bank settlements, Israel's conflict with the Palestinians takes on an increasingly religious fervour."
"...So, is Israel to be a Jewish state, or a state of the Jews?"
Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET, return to this page for a live discussion with Mr. Martin on the transformation of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
If you would like to leave a question for Mr. Martin in advance, please use the Comments area on this page.
Patrick Martin is serving for the second time as The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent, the first being from 1991-95. In between postings, the former host of CBC Radio's Sunday Morning program served as Foreign Editor and as The Globe's Comment Editor.
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