Ultra-Orthodox population in Israel up 500% from 1979

The community has the highest growth rate of any group in Israeli society

Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn leavened items in Jerusalem ahead of the Passover holiday, a tradition that dates back to the exodus from slavery in Egypt. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has grown by more than 500 per cent since 1979, new figures show, a rise that points to its rapidly changing demographics and increasing religiosity in recent decades.

The trend means that by 2048 — the year Israel marks its centenary — the group could make up more than 20 per cent of the country’s population, according to estimates seen by Israeli news channel i24.

Researchers at the Haredi Policy Research Institute mark 1979 as the first year when reliable data about the community’s numbers existed. At that time the ultra-Orthodox represented just 5.6 per cent of the population.

In January, data released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics noted that the ultra-Orthodox population had the highest growth rate of any group in the country, at 4 per cent.

It is estimated that more than 1.2 million people are ultra-Orthodox in a population of more than 9 million in Israel.

A subsequent analysis by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that a 44 per cent poverty rate for the community in 2019 was almost twice that of the general population.

It marked an improvement on earlier years, however, when poverty in the community reached its peak in 2005 at 58 per cent, helped by an increased share of men and women — in the often isolated community — entering the workplace.

In recent years, many Israelis have criticised what they view as unfairly preferential government policies towards the community, which receives significant government handouts, tax breaks and exemptions from military service.

On a Times of Israel podcast released for Israel’s 75th anniversary, Yariv Ben-Eliezer, the eldest grandson of Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion, said that in today’s country “half of the people will go to the army, and half will study Torah … This is not the people I want to live with.”

In March, demonstrators set up a mock draft office in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak just outside Tel Aviv to protest against the community’s military exemptions.

Organisers said that ultra-Orthodox politicians, who form a significant bloc in today’s coalition government, have “declared war on us, the liberal public. So we’ll mass tomorrow in Bnei Brak, home to much of the [ultra-Orthodox] leadership, to say ‘this is where it stops.’”

In 2020, only about 1,200 ultra-Orthodox men served in the country’s military.

In 2014, members of the community took to Jerusalem’s streets in one of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history to protest against a proposed law to end exemptions.

The social rift mirrors similar concerns about the community’s inclusion in mainstream education. The Central Bureau of Statistics found that only 3.5 per cent are enrolled in fully state-run schools that teach all of Israel’s curriculum. The remainder go to private institutions that teach a smaller amount of the curriculum.

In October last year, just before Israel’s most recent elections, ultra-Orthodox politician Yitzhak Pindrus told a small group of journalists: “I teach my daughters English and Maths to a very high level … My boys I want to do very well in the tradition and the Torah.

“My 14-year-old boy works very hard, at least 12 hours a day in school. If he wants to learn maths when he’s older he can do it, but right now he’s studying religious issues, that’s my priority … That’s how we grew from 2 per cent of the Israeli population to 20 per cent.”

Updated: April 27, 2023, 4:58 PM