Fundamentalist Orthodox Judaism Is Dealing a Death Blow to Israel’s Democracy
A version of the below article appeared in Haaretz on July 24, 2023.
The moral collapse of Israeli Orthodoxy is at the heart of Israel’s current crisis.
To be sure, there is a political dimension to the crisis as well, centering on the malignant tenure of Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister for the last seven months. Bibi, the one-time patriot and fervent Zionist now facing criminal charges, has descended into narcissistic recklessness.
Terrified by the possibility of prison, Netanyahu is dead-set on keeping his job, regardless of the prevarications and compromises demanded. Embracing demagoguery at previously unimagined levels and fostering as never before his own cult of personality, he has shown himself willing to dismiss checks and balances, demand a judiciary pre-selected for its political sympathies, and move Israel in the direction of an electoral autocracy.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu could never have hoped to succeed in overturning democracy without willing allies outside of Likud—allies as willing as he to betray core Zionist values. Likud not only lacked a majority but had small pockets of more-or-less moderates who might have resisted the political regression that their leader was advocating.
But Netanyahu, looking to form a government, found his allies quickly enough. The Haredi parties—Shas and United Torah Judaism—signed right up, and so did the various groupings that had run under the banner of Religious Zionism, led by far-right extremists Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Each group had its agenda, of course. The Religious Zionists wanted to build settlements at a breakneck pace in every corner of the territories, leading to annexation. The Haredi parties wanted to fortify the religious status quo for their young men: exempting them from studying core curriculum subjects, from military service, and from participating in the tax and employment burden. Since previous laws excusing them from army service had expired, passing legislation granting a permanent exemption from conscription was their first priority.
Generally speaking, each of the religious blocs supported the demands of the other. Both knew that without the other, there would be no majority and no government, potentially leaving them in the cold. Both had right-wing voters who were moving more right all the time. Both had other agenda items, for future consideration, on which they also agreed: separating men and women in public spaces; restricting the rights of Arabs, Reform Jews, and LGBTQ people; amending the Law of Return; increasing subsidies for yeshiva students, and on and on.
And most important, both agreed on the absolute necessity of restricting the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. The Court did not permit settlement-building on Arab-owned land, and Smotrich did not want the massive settlement that he hoped to promote to be delayed by constant court challenges; he also knew that the Court might show concern for the human rights of Palestinians—a concern, that, to say the least, he did not share. As for the Haredim, they knew that the Court had overturned every law that allowed Haredi young men to evade the draft. The time had come, they insisted, for a permanent fix to this problem, and that meant neutering the Court.
And so, the extremist religious settlers on the one hand and the ultra-Orthodox parties on the other conveyed their terms to a desperate Bibi Netanyahu. Settlement-building and draft exemptions were their price for establishing a government and keeping it in power, with these demands to be implemented by the so-called “reform” of the Court—by which they meant not reform but destruction. And destruction of the Court means a death blow to democracy as well.
Netanyahu responded by supporting a Court reform bill devised by his justice minister, Yariv Levin, even though during the election campaign he had rarely mentioned the Court.
But the bill soon became the essence of his agenda. Without it, after all, he would have no government. And, as an added bonus, if Israel ended up with a more constrained, more conservative Court, it might be more sympathetic to him if his own criminal case were ultimately to come before it.
But now the problem.
Netanyahu is dependent for his political survival on two radical religious blocs, both characterized by profound fundamentalism, religious intransigence, and a brazen anti-rationalism. Both profess to speak in the name of Jewish tradition, but have ripped the words of Torah from their proper context, shamelessly twisting and distorting them. Both delight in circling their ideological wagons, while remaining oblivious to everyday realities.
And this above all: Loud, belligerent, and relentless, they keep their militance sharply honed, and care not at all what the majority of Israel’s citizens think and want.
How then is Bibi to govern? As democracy-loving Israelis take to the streets, again and again, the answer, of course, is that he cannot.
Let us consider the dilemmas that his religious partners pose for him.
Fewer than 10% of eligible Haredi young men are drafted each year, far lower than the percentage for the general population. For the Haredi parties, even these numbers are too high; they demand the passage of a basic law that would officially recognize full-time Torah study as an alternative to army service. And they insist there can be no compromise on this point.
But there is no basis in Torah for such a general exemption from military duty, and a law of this type would inflame the general public almost as much as the government’s current anti-democracy proposals. It would be seen as outrageous norm-breaking at a vulnerable time, when Israel’s army and reserves are already stretched to the limit. And it would be viewed as an unceremonious trashing of Israel’s fundamental social contract, which calls for “a people’s army” and which once undergirded and fortified Israeli society.
And then there are the extremist settlers, who have appropriated the title “Religious Zionists,” to which they have no legitimate claim. They pose an even greater threat to Israel’s well-being than do the Haredim.
Led by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, they dispatch their minions to isolated areas of Samaria, where they populate deserted outposts or construct new ones, with or without government authorization. Hooligans and thugs, operating under their unofficial umbrella, harass Palestinian farmers, uprooting their olive trees and making their lives unbearable. When Palestinian terrorists, continuing their murderous ways, kill Jews, the thugs respond not by deferring to the army and police but by launching pogrom-like attacks on innocent civilians, sometimes killing and maiming women and children.
And despite an occasional half-hearted word of regret, the Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs are more likely to rejoice in these attacks than condemn them. Their graphic, apocalyptic vision of Jewish tradition, which Yuval Noah Harari has rightly labelled “Hawara Judaism” in these pages, flouts every mitzvah, moral precept, and high ideal that Torah has to offer. As Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein of Har Etzion yeshiva has stated, every firebomb thrown at innocents is “a moral stain that taints us all.”
And what do their policies mean for Israel? They mean disaster, on every level.
They mean that brave soldiers—doing their duty for the Jewish state, contending with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian subversion in Syria, and Palestinian terror in the territories and in Israel—must now risk their time and their lives chasing Jewish pogromists, who see themselves impervious to the rule of law.
It means that perpetrators of far-right violence and settlement-building in Israel have been emboldened, a reality that will lead to more clashes and unlawful activity.
It means that relations with the United States, Israel’s indispensable ally and an outspoken opponent of uncontrolled settlement expansion, have been gravely wounded, even among Israel’s most devoted American friends.
It means that friendly militaries around the world, which work closely with the Israel Defense Forces and strengthen their hands in multiple ways, have been sickened and horrified by the failure of Israel’s army to rein in the Jewish terrorists who run wild in the territories.
It means that the poisonous propaganda machines of the Israel-haters around the world have been immeasurably strengthened.
Do the settler and Haredi parties speak for all Orthodox Jews in Israel? Surely not. There are many dissenters who support democracy and oppose their religious agenda. But as both Rabbi Lichtenstein and Professor Harari make clear, little is heard from those who disagree. In both Israel and America, the Orthodox dissenters sit in surreal silence, in a bubble of their own making, deferring to the radical religious parties that speak in their name.
Let us remember, then: Winning Israel’s spirited and courageous battle for democracy will mean defeating Netanyahu, Levin, and their campaign of legal obfuscation and mendacity. But it will also mean defeating their religious enablers—the “Religious Zionists” and the Haredim—without whom this entire ugly crisis would never have begun.
If Bibi wins, they win. And if they do, they will hijack Israel’s religious freedom, corrupt the Torah beyond recognition, and subject much of the Jewish people to a sordid fundamentalism that will sap their soul and destroy their spirit.