Drama on the Streets of Jerusalem: Israel's Powerful ultra-Orthodox Party on the Verge of Collapse

The infighting at Shas is not particularly remarkable, but the prospect that some of its ranks may join a party not from the ultra-Orthodox ranks would break its hegemony.

Olivier Fitoussi

Most of the political attention in Israel this week was focused on the imminent alliance between the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, coming together in a frantic attempt to prevent another Netanyahu victory in three months. But the coming elections are causing high-drama in other corners, not only in politics but society as well. On the streets of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and in the homes of senior Sephardi rabbis, a tense power-struggle is ongoing between two factions of what was once the third-most powerful party in Israel and now is struggling for survival after losing its founder and spiritual leader.

Shas, in the year after the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is torn by the old rivalry between its political leader Aryeh Deri and the man who took over the party for thirteen years when Deri was in prison and thereafter in political purgatory, Eli Yishai. When the rabbi was still around, he could just barely manage the two unruly rivals, keeping the party somehow intact under his aegis. In his absence and with Shas plummeting in the polls, the only cement left in the Haredi-Sephardi movement is the brutal reality of political survival. 

There is nothing ideological about the Deri-Yishai rivalry. The conflict between them is about fiefdoms, jobs, control over budgets and the other trappings of political power. Deri has consolidated his position since Yosef’s death, stacking the Council of Torah Sages which nominally rules the party with rabbis who support him. Yishai, who is more popular among the party’s voters according to some polls, has been offered the number two slot and a senior minister’s post should the party enter the next coalition government. He is demanding, however, a greater share of power, a say on the party’s Knesset list and some of his own rabbis on the council.

So far none of this is particularly remarkable, not even Yishai’s implied threats to break away from Shas and head a competing party. What could be groundbreaking, however, is if Yishai exercises two of his other options. He could link up with Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who is at loggerheads with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and may be tempted to break away with his far-right Tekum faction. A Yishai-Ariel party would make electoral sense as there is a fair overlap between the settlers, ultra-nationalists, and traditional-religious Sephardi working-class constituencies. Yishai could also conceivably go a step forward and link up with Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party, highlighting his concern for social issues rather than his nationalism. 

Yishai as a politician is unimportant. He never brought anything new to the public scene (unlike Deri, who despite his avarice and cynicism, perhaps partly due to these traits, proved that ultra-Orthodox politicians could work as equals with their secular counterparts). However, the fact that he and his supporters are even contemplating running outside the "Haredi-sphere" is hugely significant. And Yishai is not alone. For months now there have been reports that one of the stars to appear on Kahlon’s eagerly anticipated Knesset list is Rabbi Yosef’s eldest daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom. A trailblazing head of a ultra-Orthodox women’s college and wife of a senior religious judge, Bar-Shalom would be an intriguing MK; along with Yishai, her move would signal an irrevocable break in the ultra-Orthodox hegemony.

It’s impossible to gauge at this point whether either of them will take the plunge, but if it doesn’t happen in the 2015 elections, it is almost certain that we will see the first mainstream ultra-Orthodox politician serving in a non-Haredi party before very long, and that could have major implications for Israeli society.

In the last 37 years, Israel has had only two governments without ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. It is fair to say that while they achieved much in securing funding for their schools and yeshivas, safeguarding their isolated status and reinforcing the rigid structures of the rabbinate, they have also increased the alienation of many Israelis toward religion and religious people in general. For all of Shas’ rhetoric in recent years of caring for the downtrodden in society, its representatives haven’t authored any major social legislation. Anti-Haredi platforms have proved vote winners. When Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett forced Netanyahu after the last election to form a coalition without Shas and United Torah Judaism, it was a generally popular move that anticipated multiple breakthroughs in legislation on a whole raft of issues.

Two years later, as the third Netanyahu government shuts down, little of significance has been achieved. There have been no real reforms on civil marriage or a more humane conversion system, while a law to draft yeshiva students which has been delayed, will almost certainly be changed by the next government and will probably be impossible to implement.Budgets for yeshivas have been slashed but the ultra-Orthodox schools have not been made to teach hundreds of thousands of Israeli children basic skills. The rabbinate and rabbinical courts remain as nepotistic and moribund as ever. Jewish education, even in secular schools, remains firmly under the control of religious-nationalists. 

You don’t have to be a fan of the ultra-Orthodox parties, with their non-democratic selection of candidates by rabbis, their segregation and disqualification of women, their naked racism toward migrants and disdain for values not their own, to recognize that a government without them has miserably failed to deliver on state and religion. That doesn’t mean they have to be in the next government, though they probably will, only that whatever their political power, any notion we may have had of forcing reform and democratic change down their throats is destined to fail. And the irony is that the ultra-Orthodox community has never been so ripe for change. The willingness of figures like Bar-Shalom and Yishai to consider running in non-Haredi lists, the heavy presence of ultra-Orthodox activists in Likud (it’s only a matter of time before the party has an ultra-Orthodox candidate on its list) are only symptoms of how weak the rabbinical leadership has become and how porous the walls of the self-imposed ghetto are. The lack of progress on legislation is ironic because on the ground, in employment, media, academia and business, more and more ultra-Orthodox individuals are integrating into Israeli society. The numbers are still relatively small and much more has to be done, but it is happening. 

Integrating ultra-Orthodox communities isn’t just a challenge facing the Israeli establishment. In most western countries, the ultra-Orthodox are barely, if at all, represented in the main Jewish representative and leadership bodies, certainly in no proportion to their growing numbers. As in Israel, the fault here is on both sides. The old establishment (and this includes the younger generation) which is loath to share its influence with outsiders it knows little and understands even less, is to blame as well as the rabbis who often prefer to stick to their insular practices, and when necessary, reach separate accommodations with what to them is the outside world. This situation is already changing as the necessity of sharing resources and joining in common causes is being brought home, but it is a process fraught with tension. 

The polarized situation in Israel, which often sets the tone also for internal Diaspora politics, is not helping, but at least the dawning realization that change will not come through political power-play is progress. Change is coming but it will only happen if it is allowed to come from within the ultra-Orthodox community, not imposed on it from without.