Are the ultra-Orthodox Israel’s new kingmakers?

Battle between secular forces within Israel’s right and the ultra-Orthodox likely to dominate Israel’s snap elections 

Bel Trew
Jerusalem
Sunday 09 June 2019 20:09
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Children watch a Haredi Jewish man cast his vote in Jerusalem during Israel’s parliamentary elections in April
Children watch a Haredi Jewish man cast his vote in Jerusalem during Israel’s parliamentary elections in April

The debate over whether to go to war with Gaza sparked Israel’s ill-fated April general election and cast a rocket-shaped shadow over the campaign trail.

But the reason the country is, for the first time in its history, hurtling towards the polling stations twice in just a few months, appears to be a spat between secular Israelis and the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community or the “Haredim”.

That struggle will likely dominate the 17 September polls.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to build a ruling right-wing coalition of religious nationalist parties was blown up by Avigdor Lieberman, his troublesome ex-defence minister.

Mr Lieberman refused to pledge his party’s five parliamentary seats to a ruling majority, as he would not relinquish tougher conscription legislation for the ultra-Orthodox.

He declared he would not allow a “Jewish law” government, currying favour with chunks of the secular right.

It plunged Israel into political paralysis: the country will have been ruled by a transitional government with limited powers for nearly a year.

Many claimed this was part of a ploy to present himself as “the secular hope”.

“Lieberman presented the idea that Israel is going to become Iran, a third world state in which we are going to have religious coercion,” Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, head of the Haredi Israel Division in the Tikvah Fund philanthropic foundation, told The Independent.

“If he is able to frame the national conversation as religious versus secular, that will strike a deeper cord than the traditional division of left versus right.”

Tzippy Yarom, a Haredi journalist, agreed.

“Lieberman is trying to split the right so that it looks like secular against the ultra-Orthodox, which it is not,” she added.

This is not an entirely new strategy.

In the run-up to elections in Israel, it is not uncommon for secular-leaning parties to scrounge more votes through “Haredi bashing”, as several members of the community put it in interviews with The Independent.

It can be useful, observers point out, to have a bogeyman to point at.

But that shift towards secular versus religious, as opposed to right versus left, is likely to dominate the conversation on this upcoming campaign trail.

That is partly because the ultra-Orthodox have proven to be very reliable partners for Mr Netanyahu, who, for the second time this year, will be campaigning under the shadow of indictment in three corruption cases.

Should Mr Netanyahu win the next election as well, their combined seats (which in April was 16) will likely be the backbone of his next attempt at a right-wing coalition, bringing these tensions to the fore.

Spokespeople from both Haredi parties Shas and the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) told The Independent they would “stick by” Mr Netanyahu no matter what, believing the court cases against him to be “politicised”.

“Do you know any president or prime minister who was removed from office over a bottle of champagne or cigar?” asked Yitzchak Pindrus, a UTJ parliamentarian, referring to “Case 1000” in which the premier and his wife are accused of taking lavish gifts from Hollywood friends in exchange for personal favours.

“People cannot get him out of office any other way than checking how many cigars he has received or given, which doesn’t make any sense,” he added.

“Right now, Israeli people want Netanyahu. Internationally, he is doing well. We have no real need to find a new home,” he concluded.

Elections aside, tensions between secular and religious communities have flared over the last few years and will continue to do so as the community expands, analysts predict.

Israeli police disperse a group of Haredi Jews during a demonstration against Israeli army conscription in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, in November (AFP/Getty)

The Haredim, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s (IDI) latest report, make up 12 per cent of the country, but by 2065 will account for a third of Israel’s overall population.

Just last month clashes between the Haredim and the security forces erupted in Jerusalem because the Eurovision finals were held on a Saturday, which violates the Sabbath.

Haredi protesters regularly come to blows with the police over shops, shopping malls and car parks being open on a Saturday.

This has sparked rival clashes between the police and angry secular people who have held their own rallies in Ashkelon and Ashdod, against the closure of shops for religious reasons over the weekend.

Underscoring these tensions is the accusation by critics that the ultra-Orthodox are a massive burden on the state.

They say the ultra-Orthodox have large impoverished families that often rely on state stipends, while contributing less to the labour force and so paying less taxes.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and children wearing Purim costumes dance in the Jerusalem Mea Shaarim neighbourhood in March (AFP/Getty)

Around half of Haredi men of working age are unemployed, according to the IDI, as many choose to opt for full-time study of the Torah instead. Only 10 per cent of non-Orthodox men of working age are jobless.

Although the Haredi employment rate is steadily increasing, those that do work often have low-paid part-time jobs. Nearly 50 per cent of the ultra-Orthodox live in poverty.

The other sticking point is the draft. Since Israel’s founding, members of the ultra-Orthodox who are in full-time religious study are allowed to defer and then ultimately secure lifelong exemption from military conscription.

Orthodox leaders fear full integration into the military, where men and women mix, will undermine a religious lifestyle.

In recent years there has been around a 50 per cent increase in numbers of young Haredi men signing up. There are more than 7,000 Haredi soldiers currently enlisted in the army, according to a Knesset Research and Information Centre (RIC) report from last year.

An Israeli army soldier of the Shachar Kachol ultra-Orthodox Jewish unit prays at a synagogue (AFP/Getty)

But many believe it is unfair that the Haredi are not punished for avoiding military service.

Over the last few years there have been fierce battles over changes to the conscription law, including the introduction of Haredi enlistment quotas and sanctions for a failure to meet them.

That battle over that wording came to a head as Netanyahu was building his coalition.

According to Lieberman the Haredi parties, who hold a total of 16 seats, would not budge on his demand that quotas be increased.

But Haredi members of the Israeli’s parliament the Knesset (MKs) say this is not the case, and Lieberman’s position was not an ideological one but a personal one.

“There was no real negotiation with us – it wasn’t a case of he said no, and we said yes, it was a game,” Mr Pindrus told The Independent.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the ultra-Orthodox parties, this was an argument between Mr Lieberman and Mr Netanyahu, who he hates.”

Former Israeli defence minister and Yisrael Beiteino party leader Avigdor Lieberman last month (Getty)

A senior source with Shas, another main ultra-Orthodox party, echoed his words.

“MK Avigdor Lieberman wanted to bring down Netanyahu,” the source said.

“Shas members are convinced that the draft law is not the reason for the elections, but rather purely personal reasons were behind Lieberman not joining the Netanyahu government.”

Both parties also denied that they were interested in imposing ultra-conservative values on Israel but rather their aim in the upcoming elections was to “keep the status quo”.

It is noticeable that a recent call for the country to be run by religious law was not made by ultra-Orthodox politicians but by the United Right, an alliance of far-right parties.

As Rabbi Pfeffer pointed out, the Haredim would not “touch such an explosive subject”.

No one can make a right-wing coalition without the Haredim

Rabbi Pfeffer, expert

That said, with a powerful number of seats, the ultra-Orthodox will likely be kingmakers in the coming elections.

“No one can make a right-wing coalition without the Haredim,” Rabbi Pfeffer concluded.

“It is difficult to see a coalition that won’t have them as a tipping point.”

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