The widening schism between Israel's secular and ultra-Orthodox communities impacts not only the state's military and economic wellbeing, but poses an existential threat to the stability of the entire Zionist project.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, known as the Haredim, is the fastest-growing segment of the country's population. This demographic shift is occurring amid escalating tensions between secular right-wing and religious-nationalist factions in Israel, raising concerns about the stability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's extremist coalition - particularly over contentious issues like Haredi military conscription.

Projected to constitute approximately 16 percent of the occupation state's population by 2030, the Haredim's burgeoning numbers have triggered a broader societal debate about Israel's future direction. This includes the challenge of reconciling today's Jewish ethno-religious identity politics with the original Israeli aspirations for a modern "liberal-democratic" state framework.

In 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed the controversial 'Nation-State' law, which officially declared that only its Jewish citizens have the right to self-determination. This law was later cited by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in their reports designating Israel as an apartheid regime.

In order to maintain the idea of a state built on Jewish supremacy, it has to be taken into consideration that Haredi Jews have a birth rate of 6.4, compared to the Jewish Israeli average of 2.5. This makes the ultra-Orthodox community an invaluable asset for Israelis seeking to maintain a demographic balance in which Jewish Israelis remain a clear majority - outside of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Economic and military challenges

In other respects, however, Israel's ultra-Orthodox community presents a number of liabilities for the state, including a significant drain on Israeli resources.

For example, the Haredim population growth has created housing crises for their communities. According to research published by Israel's Kohelet Policy Forum, an unemployed Haredi father receives an average of four times the amount of government subsidies than a non-Haredi father.

The community's unemployment rate is double the national average, with only 14 percent of Haredi students receiving a high-school certificate, compared to 83 percent in state and state-religious schools.

But today, arguably the most contentious aspect of the relationship between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Israeli state is the former's longstanding exemption from mandatory military service.

In the early years of the occupation state's history, only a few hundred Yeshiva (Jewish religious school) students were granted this exemption.

However, in 1977, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin extended the exemption to include the entire Haredi community, a move that has persistently divided public opinion, particularly as all other Jewish Israeli citizens are required to serve in the military.

The Haredim's lack of contribution to the national economy and military, coupled with their extraordinary financial entitlements from the state's coffers, has made them the "most hated people in Israel."

Political influence and legal reforms

Despite the public's animosity, the ultra-Orthodox are extremely important to Israel's illegal settlement program and now occupy powerful, 'kingmaker' positions in both national and local government. According to the Israel Policy Forum, roughly one-third of all West Bank settlers are Haredi, with a similar number distributed throughout occupied east Jerusalem.

The illustrate the growing political clout of this community, the Haredi political faction, Shas, secured 11 seats in Israel's Knesset in the 2022 national elections, becoming the third largest component of the government's ruling coalition. Public unease was further exacerbated by the ultra-Orthodox parties' success in Jerusalem's City Council elections.

It was no surprise, then, that upon Netanyahu's election victory, he launched a campaign of controversial legal reforms that critics charged would transform Israel's secular model of governance into a theocratic one.

The Haredim's mark on Israeli society can no longer be overlooked. The country's fastest-growing population is now seeded throughout local and national governments, and thanks to Netanyahu's uber-fragile coalition structure, it is today able to impact Israel's every social, political, and military decision.

Conscription or exodus

But these matters are now coming to a head. In late March, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered that ultra-Orthodox Jews be provided government subsidies for religious studies and conscripted into the army.

The ruling came down after Netanyahu delayed a Knesset vote on a bill to renew the extension exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military conscription. Earlier, in March, Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef had threatened that the Haredim would leave Israel altogether if forced into military service.

The Supreme Court order caused an uproar in the community, with Haredi members vowing to disregard the law and will "never serve in the army."

Israeli military service has long been discouraged within the Haredim, to the point where its members have and can be de facto excommunicated and shunned by even their own families. In fact, Haredi Jews who have decided to break social norms and join the army have a specific combat battalion set up for them in the West Bank called Netzah Yehuda.

The Supreme Court decision, delivered less than 24 hours before the 1 April conscription exemption renewal deadline, effectively ended funding for 50,000 full-time Talmud students, prompting 18 senior Shas Rabbis to sign a letter condemning the move. The letter reads, "We will not be deterred from going to prison," and claims that forced conscription is a conspiracy to reduce observance of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Israel's massive economic toll from its ongoing war on Gaza, the Yemeni-imposed blockade on all Israel-linked shipping in several key regional waterways, and Lebanese Hezbollah's daily military operations in the north have significantly strained Tel Aviv's financial resources. In recent years, the cost of maintaining subsidies to ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students alone has skyrocketed to 136 million dollars per annum, providing a strong argument for the Israeli opposition to end the funding.

The fate of Netanyahu's government

The ongoing debate over Haredi conscription has reached a critical stage, posing potential risks to Netanyahu's leadership and the stability of his rocky coalition. The wartime emergency government set in place since 7 October, includes opposition leaders like Benny Gantz of the National Unity Party, who challenge the prime minister every step of the way.

Gantz has delivered his own ultimatum: to exit the government if exemptions for the Haredim are passed. His threats come on the back of Netanyahu's vacillating stances on whether he will enact or oppose the exemptions - illustrating just how carefully the prime minister is forced to tread domestic political lines in the midst of a regional war, and exemptions, and just how fragile his unity government remains.

Netanyahu faces a stark choice: secure the support of his Haredi coalition partners by maintaining their military exemption, or yield to everyone else in the country and compel Haredi conscription.

The dilemma is further complicated by the potential implications for Israel's settlement expansion and demographic strategy, ultimately impacting the survival of the "Jewish state."

The schism threatening the state

This issue has also spilled into the growing schism between secular and religious Israeli factions. If the Haredim do not join the army - especially critical during wartime when those numbers are needed - it means that at least 40 percent of Israeli passport holders, including both ultra-Orthodox and 1948 Palestinians (who traditionally do not serve in the military), will be exempt from military service.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics' 2021 survey reveals that 45 percent of Israel's Jewish population identifies as secular or non-religious. This is a country very neatly divided in terms of religious Judaic observance.

This division is further evidenced by the public's response to Netanyahu's proposed legal reforms, with opposition fluctuating between 43 and 66 percent throughout 2023, depending on the polling data.

The Haredim's political ascent today challenges the traditional Zionist vision of a secular Jewish ethno-state by introducing the complexity of accommodating a significant portion of the population that adheres to religious fundamentalism.

The Haredim's aversion to integration in a modern capitalist economy - and their role within the framework of a state that aspires to be both Jewish and democratic - is profound. This raises essential questions about the practicality of Zionism as it confronts the realities of a diverse and evolving Israeli society.

Moreover, the juxtaposition of an increasingly religious Israeli government - against the backdrop of a population that includes nearly an equal number of Palestinians - highlights the inherent contradictions within the concept of a "Jewish democracy."

As secular ultra-nationalists begin to challenge the religious right fronted by Netanyahu, this internal conflict will continue to shake Israel's foundations. While the occupation state staggers under the pressures of a multi-front, regional war, the likes of which it has never encountered in its short history, it is the Haredim issue today that - internally - poses the biggest existential threat to the entirety of the Zionist project.