Analysis

'Leftist' Out, 'anti-Semite' In: How Israel's Election Became a Religious War

Incitement seems to be an increasingly common tactic as everyday Israelis battle the 'contagious disease' afflicting the body politic

From Likud's Russian Facebook page a rare sight: Avigdor Lieberman, with wine, breaking bread with ultra-Orthodox leaders including Yaakov Litman, left, August 2019.
Likud / Facebook

It’s a sad sight at the Shabbat lunch table as the elderly man, clad in a prayer shawl, returns home from his morning prayers. His wife greets him lovingly with “Shabbat Shalom” before he sees that, even though she has neatly laid out the large table for a family meal, all the chairs are empty.

“Marcel, what’s going on? Where are all the kids?” he asks, and his wife sighs mournfully: One daughter went to a party, another to the mall and their son to a government office to renew his passport.

“On Shabbat?” asks the man incredulously. “What can we do? It’s Lapid’s new law,” his wife shrugs, referring to Yair Lapid, a politician who, like Avigdor Lieberman, is known for curbing entitlements to the ultra-Orthodox community. The wife then informs her husband that another daughter didn’t show up because she went to work. “WORK? But today is SHABBAT! For heaven’s sake!”

As the couple dig into their lonely meal, an announcer intones: “This is what your Shabbat will look like if we don’t protect it from Lapid and Lieberman. Only Shas will protect Shabbat and the Jewish state.”

This new campaign ad for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is just one exchange in Israel’s do-over election campaign stressing the country’s battles over religion and state.

For ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas and the voters targeted in the ad — traditional Moroccan Jews and other Mizrahi families with roots in the Muslim world — the fear is that Israeli politicians will succumb to pressure and give the secular community greater freedom. At issue is the allowing of commerce and public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath, not to mention the potential allowing of civil marriage, which allegedly would lead to an utter abandonment of Jewish tradition.

For secular Jews, fears of growing religious coercion have been triggered by the ultra-Orthodox community’s growing political power. This has translated into sex segregation in the army and increased religious content in secular schools, at the expense of other subjects.

Kahol Lavan leaders Yair Lapid, left, and Benny Gantz at the Knesset, June 12, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Hard left

To be sure, it’s nothing new for religious-secular issues to play a major role in an Israeli election. Lieberman and Lapid are far from the first to capitalize on resentments against the ultra-Orthodox community, most of whose young men don’t serve in the army, amid the government’s funding of yeshivas and other institutions. For example, the left-wing Democratic Union alliance has been offering up a “secular hotline” ad where worried citizens can report religious coercion.

Experience shows that the fight for secular rights can often sway voters to support a party that may not precisely match their position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It also has a mirror effect: When ultra-Orthodox leaders hit back in defense of their community, it can boost their already-impressive turnout.

But it seems that, in the final weeks before the September 17 vote, the religion-state divide is even more prominent than usual — most likely because it was an Orthodox-secular standoff that produced dual elections this year.

It was Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox’s refusal to compromise on a bill forcing more ultra-Orthodox men into the army that prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from forging a governing coalition after the April election. Thus the Knesset was dissolved and a new election was called.

Since then, Lieberman has become a hero among secular Israelis — even those who don’t share his right-wing views on the conflict with the Palestinians — boosting his Yisrael Beiteinu party in the polls far above the five seats it won in April. His support seems to be, at least partially, taken from Benny Gantz and Lapid’s centrist Kahol Lavan party.

Before the April campaign, and until recent days, Gantz — who comes from an observant family — has bent over backward to maintain a good relationship with the ultra-Orthodox in an attempt to counter Lapid’s reputation for confronting them.

Gantz even appeared to chide Lapid last month when the latter was criticized for a satirical video tweet that portrayed the ultra-Orthodox as extorting Netanyahu for funds in exchange for loyalty. Netanyahu called the video “anti-Semitic,” while the leader of the United Torah Judaism party, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, called it a “hate crime.”

Gantz infected, too?

Gantz, for his part, posted a call for members of his party to “spread love without judgment” and said “the strength of Israeli society is based on the unity of all its parts — secular and religious, Jews and non-Jews, left and right.”

But in a shift of tone, presumably designed to help win back defectors to Lieberman, Gantz made clear that he prefers to form a “secular” unity government, adding that the ultra-Orthodox had to remember that “they’re the minority” while most Israelis are part of a “sane majority.”

This triggered a quick counterattack from the ultra-Orthodox camp; Litzman said he had changed his mind about attacking Gantz. Now, he said, “It seems that Lapid is a contagious disease that has also infected Gantz, so in my eyes they’re the same.” He added that Lapid was “infected with anti-Semitism.”

Lapid tweeted in response that he simply had asserted that every child in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox included, “should learn math and English, that every young man should enlist in the military or national service, and that I want to live in a state that is Jewish but free from religious coercion.”

He said the response by the ultra-Orthodox was to call him things like “Hitler,” “anti-Semitic” and ”infectious disease,” before adding, “and then THEY call ME an inciter.”

But incitement seems to be an increasingly common tactic for most parties as they battle for every vote in the days before the election. With stubbornly consistent polls pointing to another deadlock, Netanyahu’s Likud has once more turned to racist scare tactics, running ads warning about a “leftist-Arab” coalition if the right doesn’t win.

So it comes as little surprise that the heightened emotions regarding religion are now fair game. If it seems that if evoking a dystopian future of Taliban-style religious oppression of women, or communist-era religious suppression resulting in empty Shabbat tables, might increase a party’s chance to grab a few more seats in the Knesset, it won’t hesitate.