Religious Issues in Israel’s Election
For the first time in a long time, there is a modest possibility that, as a result of next week’s election, the religious realities of Israeli society might actually change for the better.
Such an outcome is far from certain. Nonetheless, the campaign has developed in such a way that Israeli voters have been reminded of something that they have long known but rarely discuss: The Haredim are the least popular segment of Israel’s Jewish population.
Something very interesting and different has happened in this latest round of campaigning.
Parties across the political spectrum usually refrain from criticizing the Haredi parties, preferring to cozy up to them so as to retain the option of eventually drawing them into a governing coalition.
But this time, what has transpired is exactly the opposite. Parties of the left, right, and center have attacked the Haredi political establishment with gusto, recognizing that doing so is a winning electoral strategy.
The virtues of such an approach are most apparent from the experience of Avigdor Lieberman. After the last election, many polls suggested that Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party would get at most 5 seats, and might not even make it into the Knesset. But after refocusing his campaign on religious issues, such as drafting Haredim into the army and operating buses and trains on Shabbat, Lieberman’s numbers skyrocketed. A variety of polls now suggest that he can expect to win between 8 and 11 seats.
Something similar has happened to Blue and White, the centrist alliance that is led by Benny Gantz and that is Likud’s and Bibi Netanyahu’s major challenger.
Initially, Gantz was reluctant to address religious matters, thinking that an alliance with the Haredim remained a possibility for Blue and White. But his own party’s internal polling and Lieberman’s rise in the polls made it clear that the voters Gantz had hoped to attract were fed up with the antics of the Haredi political parties and sickened by the impact that they are having on Israeli society. If Gantz did not do something, he realized that those voters would go with Lieberman, or with someone else.
The result? Last week Gantz proclaimed his intention to form a “liberal” unity government, implying that he was ruling out joining forces with the Haredi parties.
Lieberman has also called for a unity government that would exclude the Haredim and that would include Yisrael Beiteinu, Blue and White, and Likud without Netanyahu.
No one can predict with certainty the make-up of Israel’s next government. But the point is that some kind of unity government without the Haredim is far more likely now than it was even a month or two ago. And according to a series of polls conducted by Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious pluralism, 68% of Israeli voters support a coalition without the religious parties that would assertively pursue religious freedom.
And what all this means is that there is a glimmer of hope that something might actually be done about the medieval religious monopoly that is strangling Israel’s soul, tearing the heart out of Torah, and inundating Israelis with dark torrents of religious mania and extremism.
In a sane world, where so many politicians and local officials are rising up against Haredi institutions, Haredi leaders would be engaged in serious introspection. They would be asking themselves the question: Why the opposition to us and what might we do to remedy the problems?
But instead, they are engaging in inanities. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the leading Haredi Knesset member, responded to Benny Gantz’s decision by asserting that Gantz had been “infected” with anti-Semitism by Yair Lapid, another leader of Blue and White and a frequent critic of Haredi leaders. And in response to charges by Lapid that the Haredim were extorting money from the government for their voters and institutions, MK Yisrael Eichler stated that “the shrieks of Lapid remind us of the shrieks of Hitler.”
The problem, obviously, is not that Lieberman, Gantz, and Lapid are anti-Semites or Nazis. The problem is that Israelis are tired of a sclerotic, Haredi-run rabbinate telling them who is Jewish enough marry in Israel and who is not; who can convert to Judaism and who cannot; who determines what food is kosher and what is not; and whether public transportation is available for visiting savta (grandma) on Shabbat.
The problem is that employment rates among prime working age (35-54) Haredi men were 80% in the late 1970s and under 40% in the early 2000s; and that the overall employment rate for Israeli men today is 82.5%, while for Haredi men it is 47.8%. And the average non-Haredi Israeli is sick and tired of paying for the subsidies that Haredi men receive from the government, enabling them to refrain from the work and army service that sustain the Jewish state and are the duty of all its citizens.
The problem is that Israeli schools are among the worst in the developed world, primarily because 20% of Israeli students are Haredim who learn no science, math, and English after eighth grade and very little before.
The problem is that if the Haredim join a narrow, rightwing government, Netanyahu, desperate to avoid prosecution, will shower them with every conceivable benefit in return for an immunity law. And the result will be that as bad as things are now, they will get much worse. Separation of sexes at public events will be formally legalized, and will lead to segregating the sexes in schools and on buses, sidewalks, and sports fields. Women will be discouraged from entering the army. Conversion standards, already impossibly high, will be tightened further. And primitive DNA testing by the Chief Rabbinate will become the standard means of determining who is Jewish.
Such a scenario is neither imaginary nor far-fetched. It is based on what the Chief Rabbinate is already doing and what the Haredi parties have established as their method of operation. And this scenario is also the reason why Lieberman, Gantz, and Lapid have found such a receptive audience among a majority of Israelis for their proposal to establish a unity government without the Haredim. And why it is so important that they succeed.
Haredi spokesmen claim, of course, as Litzman’s comment on anti-Semitism indicates, that the opponents of the Haredi parties are haters of Jews and Judaism.
But this is nonsense. Those working to constrain the power and the reach of the Haredi parties are, with very few exceptions, working not to undermine Judaism but to save it.
The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 is one of the great miracles and mysteries of human history. But there is tragic irony in the fact those who profess to speak in Judaism’s name in that state have distorted the message of Torah and feel no responsibility for the common welfare of her citizens. They have instead created a powerful, self-serving bureaucracy, meant to benefit their own constituency while disregarding fundamental tenets of Jewish teaching.
The state of Israel needs to be a state where all of her citizens study, work, pay taxes, support their families, and contribute in a direct way to defending the country against her enemies. Perhaps, just perhaps, Israeli voters have awakened to this reality. Perhaps, just perhaps, when the votes are counted after next week’s election, the resolve of Gantz, Lapid, and Lieberman will finally point the Jewish state in this direction.