Written by David M. Halbfinger
For years, the resentment had been building. In Israel, Jewish men and women are drafted into the military, but the ultra-Orthodox are largely exempt. Unlike other Israelis, many ultra-Orthodox receive state subsidies to study the Torah and raise large families.
And in a country that calls itself home to all Jews, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have a state-sanctioned monopoly on events like marriage, divorce and religious conversions.
A series of political twists has suddenly jolted these issues to the fore, and the country’s long-simmering secular-religious divide has become a central issue in the national election on Tuesday.
In a country buffeted by a festering conflict with the Palestinians, increasingly open warfare with Iran and a prime minister facing indictment on corruption charges, the election has been surprisingly preoccupied with the question of just how Jewish — and whose idea of Jewish — the Jewish state should be.
“I have nothing against the ultra-Orthodox, but they should get what they deserve according to their size,” said Lior Amiel, 49, a businessman who was out shopping in Ramat Hasharon. “Currently, I’m funding their lifestyle.”
This election was supposed to be a simple do-over, a quick retake to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a second chance to form a government and his opponents another shot at running him out of office.
Instead it has become what Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, calls “a critical campaign for the trajectory of the country.”
Blame Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular politician who forced the new election by refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. The hill Lieberman chose to fight on was a new law that would eliminate the wholesale exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers wanted to water it down. Lieberman refused to compromise.
It may have been a ploy to grab attention, but it struck a nerve. Almost overnight, Lieberman’s support doubled, and he became an unlikely hero to liberals.
For years, says Jason Pearlman, a veteran right-wing political operative, the two main axes of Israeli politics, religion and the Palestinians, had been “zip-tied” together. Netanyahu’s longtime coalition was just such a merger — right-wing voters, who favored a hard line toward the Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox, who promised a bloc vote in exchange for concessions on religious issues.
“What Lieberman did was to snap those zip-ties, popping the axes back apart,” Pearlman said.
Secular and liberal leaders from the left and center responded by effectively joining forces with the right-wing Lieberman against the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies.
These rebels say that the mushrooming ultra-Orthodox population, with its unemployed religious students and large families subsidized by the state, is imposing excessive fiscal and social burdens on other Israelis. They are demanding more pluralistic options for marriages and conversions.
They were appalled that the ultrareligious parties were willing to grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, arguing that Netanyahu was buying his way out of jail by allowing Israel to be turned into a theocracy.
And they are furious at the growing influence of a quasi-evangelistic group of religious-nationalist Jews who espouse anti-feminist, anti-gay views and a far-right, messianic ideology.
“It’s becoming more and more alarming,” said Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Democratic Union party. “People are starting to feel threatened.”
The ultra-Orthodox parties insist that they are simply defending a status quo that dates to Israel’s founding and is meant to preserve study of the Torah by its most pious devotees. A compromise with Israel’s then-fledgling religious community gave Orthodox rabbis control over family and dietary laws, among other things, in exchange for their support for the new state.
The ultra-Orthodox now make up only 10% of eligible Jewish voters, Israeli pollsters say — compared with 44% who consider themselves secular — but they have kept and added to those concessions thanks to their ability to extract promises in exchange for their political support.
“We’re not becoming a smaller minority, we’re becoming a larger minority,” said Yitzhak Zeev Pindrus, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism. “But we’re trying to keep it the same way it is.”
The religious-nationalists dismiss the criticism of their intentions as anti-Semitic self-loathing.
“They’re on a hate campaign against anything that has a Jewish aroma to it,” said Eytan Fuld, a spokesman for the right-wing Yamina party.
The balance of state and religion goes to the heart of Israel’s national identity.
“Is it a Jewish, national state, and that’s all?” says Ariel Picard, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “Or is it a Jewish democratic state, with humanistic values?”
The question has real consequences: The ultrareligious warn their adherents that the country could lose its soul and that it could no longer be socially acceptable or economically feasible to live as God-fearing, Torah-observing Jews. And their opponents say the Israel they love is steadily turning into an unrecognizable and inhospitable place.
The debate has periodically flared up over issues like religious students’ exemption from military service and lifting rules that prohibit most buses, trains and stores from operating on the Sabbath.
But those rows have traditionally pitted the ultra-Orthodox against the secular. This time, the fault line runs through another group: the skullcap-wearing and Sabbath-observing “national religious” Jews who, unlike many ultra-Orthodox, are also ardent Zionists and support a Greater Israel that incorporates the West Bank.
It is the growing influence of a vocal sliver of that group, the evangelizing, socially conservative Haredi national-religious, that has alarmed secular Israelis.
Most of them favor annexation of the West Bank, which would nearly extinguish the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, and many support building a Third Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock, an affront to a Muslim holy site that could set off a cataclysmic holy war.
As Netanyahu’s power has waned, these far-right leaders have gained influence, culminating in this summer’s appointments of two of them to his Cabinet: Bezalel Smotrich as transportation minister and Rafi Peretz, a former military chief rabbi, as education minister.
Peretz has boasted that he’s using his role as education minister to introduce youngsters to the settlements, and Smotrich has promised to pave highways to bring “hundreds of thousands” of Israelis to the West Bank.
Peretz told an interviewer that he supported “conversion therapy” for gays and had performed it, before retreating under fire, and has spoken of schools for prophecy replacing universities. Smotrich called for a restoration of the “Torah justice system,” prompting allegations that he wanted to create a state governed by religious law.
Horowitz, the Democratic Union leader and a longtime advocate for religious pluralism, said that what was most offensive was what he called the exploitation of “captive audiences” of army recruits and schoolchildren.
Parents, he said, are complaining that secular-school pupils are being sent to as many as nine hours a week of religious instruction, that their children are asking them why they don’t keep kosher and worrying that their shorts show too much skin, and that they are being exposed to religious content even in subjects like math.
The far-right religious politicians, however, say their efforts have a simple and benign goal. “The word is more Jewish,” said Fuld, the Yamina spokesman.
He said Smotrich and Peretz were being unfairly caricatured. “No one’s calling for a theocracy,” he said.
Still, misgivings about the far-right ultrareligious haunt even right-wing Jewish voters who have normally voted for Netanyahu. And the debate over which Jewish values should take precedence is dividing religious families and congregations alike.
At the Shtiblach synagogue in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, Harry Grynberg, 62, a lawyer, said he voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party in April but would not this time. Smotrich and Peretz’s focus on divisive issues had driven him to support the Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz, which promises to unify the country from the center out, he said.
“I’ve got kids, I’ve got grandchildren,” Grynberg said. “And when you look at Israeli society, you’d like there to be more of a getting together, rather than a moving apart.”
The ascendance of the debate on religion may have trapped Netanyahu in what until now has seemed like a very savvy trade: rock-solid support from the ultra-Orthodox on the economy and national security in exchange for giving them a free hand in matters of religion.
More than 70% of the population wants the Sabbath “to be a more free day” and favors civil marriage and other changes that the ultra-Orthodox have blocked, said Gilad Malach, a scholar who studies the them.
Netanyahu has desperately tried to change the subject, repeatedly bringing security threats to the fore.
“For him, these issues are ticking bombs,” said Plesner, of the Israel Democracy Institute. “He’s on a collision course with his own voters. The majority of Likud voters are secular or traditional, and do not support the ultra-Orthodox demands.”
But opponents have learned never to write off Netanyahu, and he could still make the numbers work. The recent fiery attacks on the ultra-Orthodox offer just the threat to rally the base and potentially bring back into the fold voters who might otherwise stray to more modern parties.
An ad by Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, sends the message home with a wallop: an elderly couple sit alone at their Sabbath table, peering across a sea of empty chairs.
Where are the kids? the husband asks his wife.
One’s at a party, one’s at the mall, one’s renewing his passport, and one got called into work.
“This is how our Shabbat will look,” the ad warns, “unless we protect it.”
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