Analysis

How the Battle Over Shabbat Overshadows Israel's Perennial Left-right Divide

Public outrage over efforts to shut down grocery stores on Shabbat and to limit the integration of women in the army could upend Israeli politics

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Ashdod, January 20, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

Israeli leftists found themselves in the rare and awkward position in recent days of applauding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his most hawkish ministers, if only for a moment.

The prime minister’s quick rejection of a campaign being waged by prominent rabbis on the radical right against the full integration of women in the Israeli army, along with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s more forceful reaction, is a sudden and unexpected rupture in the seemingly immutable left vs. right divide.

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Coupled with swelling secular outrage over a new law and renewed efforts to shut down grocery stores and supermarkets operating on Shabbat, the current anti-religious angst offers a glimpse, fleeting as it may be, of a political landscape in which the fight against Orthodox theocracy realigns Israeli politics and overshadows the familiar standoff over the future of the occupied territories.

In their hot pursuit of a law that would close down Shabbat-desecrating grocery stores, even those operating in purely secular neighborhoods, the ultra-Orthodox struck a raw nerve.The secular public’s anger was then inflamed further when Likud reassurances that there would be no actual changes in the status quo after the law was approved quickly turned out to be false.The sight of non-Jewish municipal inspectors marking the offenders and handing out fines in the coastal town of Ashdod ignited and united chunks of the Israeli public, from Meretz peaceniks to Russian sabre-rattlers, including, most significantly, many of the Likud’s own hardcore base of more traditional Sephardi Jews. They may diligently go to synagogue every week but nonetheless refuse to see their cities revert to ghost towns on Shabbat, as they were until a decade or two ago.

Some two thousand people demonstrate in the city of Ashdod to protest plan to close businesses on Shabbat after the Knesset passed the 'Supermarkets Law.'
Ilan Assayag

Given the political heat that Likud leaders have been taking from their voters for supporting the Haredi-sponsored the so-called "Supermarkets Law," they were desperate for a diversion that would allow them to convince their edgy constituency that even the Likud had red lines they would not cross.

Along came a group of radical right wing and religious rabbis, from the so-called “Nationalist-Haredi camp”, led by the government-employed rabbis Shlomo Eliyahu of Safed and Shlomo Aviner from the Jewish settlement of Beit El, to provide a convenient escape. Eliyahu and Aviner are periodically involved in controversy because of their radical and often offensive racist/militant/misogynist statements, and they didn’t disappoint this time around either.
Reacting to the Israeli media’s hoopla celebration of the appointment of the first female squadron commander in the Israel Air Force, the two challenged the army’s policy of opening up as many roles as possible for female recruits, with Eliyahu calling for the dismissal of the army's chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, and Aviner threatening to forbid his male students and disciples from enlisting in the army altogether, lest they succumb to seduction. In everyone but their devoted followers’ ears, their message was infuriating, misogynistic and, not to put too fine a point on it, primitive as hell.

The rabbis’ position was publicly endorsed by an even more supreme spiritual leader who gets his salary from the same government he criticizes, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Their joint demand to prevent women from serving in the army, in general, and in mixed combat units, in particular, sparked rare wall-to-wall indignation that spanned all the way from Israel’s rabid right to its loony left. The rabbis made the mistake of assaulting two Israeli sacred cows at the same time: The still-powerful reverence for the Israel Defense Forces as the epitome of Israeli nationhood and the newfound adoption, which some would describe more as lip service, of true equality for women, at least in those areas that are under the state’s control.

Even without public opinion polls, one can safely assert that the milestone promotion of a female pilot to the coveted position of squadron leader thrilled the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis, at least the Zionist ones, and filled them with pride. Eizenkot, who was left to twist in the wind by many right-wingers, including Netanyahu, when he refused to sympathize with Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of killing an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron, garnered something close to wall-to-wall political support this time around.

The first to capitalize on the new political opportunity was Lieberman, whose Russian constituency is both super-hawkish and hyper-secular. Lieberman, whose party Yisrael Beiteinu has been lagging in the polls, immediately banned the offending rabbis from appearing in the army, a significant step given that Yosef is one of the country’s two supreme spiritual leaders. Lieberman also stoked coalition tensions by joining Shabbat shoppers in Ashdod, a city with a heavy Russian presence, amplifying their angry protest against the new law that his own coalition colleagues had passed. 

Rather than trying to fend off sniping from his main rival on the hawkish right, Naftali Bennet, over his currently careful policies in Gaza, Lieberman hopes to persuade Russians that his anti-religious bona fides trump any concerns they may have about his sudden softness on defense matters. Bennet, leader of the Bayit Yehudi party to which the renegade rabbis belong, was forced to maneuver and wiggle to please both of the party’s wings, now split into supporters and opponents of the integration of women in the army. He wound up, as expected, displeasing both.

Of course, religious-secular tensions are a permanent feature of Israeli politics, which periodically flares up and occasionally influences the outcome of elections.  Throughout the 1990’s, the issue of religious coercion by, and the government’s capitulation to, ultra-Orthodox parties led to a renaissance of a secular-centrist force that placed the liberation of Israel from Orthodox shackles, as its leaders portrayed it, at the top of its agenda. The mastermind and main beneficiary of that brief upsurge in secular power was Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, father of Yair Lapid, the photogenic leader of his own tailor-made Yesh Atid party. Lapid had actually been trying to improve his tense relations with the ultra-Orthodox out of concern that he might need them to set up his own coalition one day but suddenly found himself forced to commit an abrupt about-face given the possibility that the tide of anti-religious sentiment could theoretically sweep him all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office - unless Lieberman succeeds in stealing his thunder first. The singling out of Lieberman by the ultra-Orthodox as their new public enemy number was music to his ears but bad tidings for Lapid.

Despite his criticism of the right wing rabbis, Netanyahu knows that he is particularly vulnerable to a secular intifada. He does not want to clash with the energized masses of ultra-religious settlers and right wingers who could turn the radical right against him any more than he seeks to confront the ultra-Orthodox parties at a time when he needs them most. The expedient loyalty of the ultra-Orthodox, who will continue to back Bibi as long as he lets them have their way with the country, will allow Netanyahu to set a date for early elections that will be convenient for him, rather than for his rivals.

Netanyahu is desperately seeking an agenda-changing event that will allow him to fall back on his proven fortes in security affairs and lambasting leftists. Vice President Mike Pence is unlikely to generate the kind of excitement that would be up to the task. The last thing Netanyahu needs, though the opposite might be true for Israel itself, is an electorate that suddenly decides that with all due respect to Judea, Samaria and those perennial Palestinians, ordinary Israelis, at least those who live within the so-called Green Line, should finally start thinking about themselves.