A Crumbling Secular Hegemony

Will the left have to concede more political power to traditionalist forces?

Two major stories in the past month have illuminated the charged but changing state of religious-secular relations in Israel.

First we got a brace of polls auguring that a return by former Shas kingpin Aryeh Deri to active politics could alter the political equilibrium in Israel. Deri - running either as head of Shas or preferably, from the left's perspective, heading a new Knesset list - could deny Benjamin Netanyahu the premiership by shifting Knesset seats from the center-right to the center.

The salivation of Yedioth Ahronoth's veteran Bibi basher Sima Kadmon over the prospect of Deri's return after a forced hiatus following a conviction and jail sentence on corruption charges was palpable but ironic. Many who currently view the former Shas leader as their champion for ousting the "usurper" Netanyahu felt differently in 1999 following Ehud Barak's electoral victory. They were either part of the crowd that serenaded Barak with the chant "Anybody but Shas," or strongly sympathized with its message.

The left was aghast at Shas' success in that year's Knesset election, when it garnered 17 seats. That success was fueled by a backlash against Deri's conviction a few months earlier. If Shas could go to the country armed with the slogan "He [Deri] is innocent" - effectively repudiating the judicial verdict or at least accusing the judiciary of double standards, went the refrain from the left at the time - it could never be considered a suitable partner. Well, that was 1999, and now the left expectantly awaits the "new improved" Aryeh Deri.

A different message was transmitted when the country was polarized over the police snatching of Rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef, followed by a mini-interrogation of each. The rabbis had given rubber-stamp approval to an obscure religious tome that the left found racist even though its major thrust deals with collateral damage, including civilian casualties, during military operations. This triggered a police investigation and the summoning of the rabbis.

This brought back memories of the 1999 confrontation with Deri, with the left trumpeting the rule of law, and the religious and nationalists firing back with charges of double standards, claiming that political payoffs had always been part of the game when the left was in power.

Last Friday, Reshet Bet's presenter on the Friday noon news program - after solemnly sermonizing over the importance of upholding the rule of law in order to chastise Lior's adherents - immediately moved on to sympathize with the plight of illegal immigrants and their offspring, without even realizing the incongruity of the transition. She and others who oppose enforcing the law on illegal immigrants effectively made the case that a selective rule of law does apply where certain regulations (governing immigration, work on the Sabbath and sex-solicitation advertisements in newspapers, to name a few examples ) are dead letters and others (sedition ) are to be unidirectionally stretched to the point of absurdity.

These are snapshots of two mutually exclusive approaches. The first realizes that the religiously observant public cannot be ignored and constitutes an important element in the Israeli body politic. The second approach desperately clings to the idea that a Kulturkampf, masquerading as a battle over the rule of law, remains a viable option for checking the growing influence of the religious and traditional public.

While I retain misgivings about Deri and would definitely not wish to see him as a Trojan horse for the political left, his effective rehabilitation by his former detractors reflects a healthy pragmatism. One can express similar optimism over Yair Lapid's decision to eschew the religious-baiting tactics of his late father, Tommy Lapid, and his reported plans to include religious figures on his ticket if and when he takes the plunge.

Deri circa 2011 or Lapid's potential running mates will no longer be willing to suffice with sectoral payoffs to the religious or transparent gestures a la Ezer Weizman's remark that secularist enfant terrible Shulamit Aloni would be ready to don a shtreimel in return for religious acquiescence to the peace process. Nor will the religious be satisfied by the inclusion of a representative of the minuscule religious left a la Avrum Burg or Michael Melchior. The accommodation, if it is to occur, will need to be on more equal and substantive grounds and it will be mutually beneficial. Some secularists still refuse that accommodation, and are convinced that their predominance in the judiciary and the intellectual elite will allow them to continue appropriating the terms "democracy" and "rule of law" for sectarian political purposes.

Practically, this will not work. The left's hegemony is crumbling here as well. In the recent Israeli Bar Association elections, Yuri Guy-Ron, a supporter of judicial activism, lost to an opponent of that approach. The new Education Ministry's civics coordinator is less likely to embed the left's approach in civics textbooks. Conservative think tanks such as the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Shalem Institute are starting to catch up with their longer established leftist counterparts. Soon Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch will retire from the bench and her successor will sound the retreat from activism.

More importantly, employing democracy and rule of law instrumentally and monopolistically has already diminished the respect accorded to these terms. These tactics also invite threats of judicial retaliation such as those issued this week by MK Yaakov Katz, of the National Union, that once the power relations are reversed, and the religious are in control of the judicial system, they will put the old elites on trial for persecuting the rabbis and similar misuse of their.position. This mirror-image reversal would obviously be catastrophic for the secular left, but equally damaging to the religious.

Democracy is best served by the lively interplay between liberalism and conservatism, allowing each legitimate stream to correct itself when its ideas are repudiated by either the public or reality. By marginalizing or excluding political opponents, we create monopolistic conditions with all their attendant disadvantages.

Dr. Amiel Ungar, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to Haaretz English Edition.