Ultra-Orthodox Parties and Netanyahu: An Unholy Deal That Just Came Apart

Israel's opposition understood that targeting Netanyahu's rock-solid alliance with Haredim was the only way to shake secular voters from their apathy. But it's not the ultra-Orthodox who want theocracy, it's the religious Zionists

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Supporters of United Torah Judaism in Jerusalem, September 15, 2019.
Supporters of United Torah Judaism in Jerusalem, September 15, 2019. Credit: Oren Ben Hakon
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The most effective campaign video in the election season, which is now mercifully over, wasn’t of a political party. It was produced by the non-kosher supermarket chain Tiv Ta’am. It opens with a Tiv Ta’am branch in north Tel Aviv, which may have to close down because of the law passed in the previous government against Shabbat trading.

“But you don’t have to make a fuss over just a supermarket,” says the voice-over. “And this is just not seeing your family on Shabbat because there’s no public transport,” he says, with a picture of a sad-eyed elderly parent. “And this is just staying hungry in hospital,” cut to frame of a vending machine, switched off on Shabbat. Then, with a backdrop of IDF soldiers, “And this is just being confined to base, because you forgot a sausage and cheese in the fridge. And this is just your children giving three years of their life. And this is just sitting behind on the bus.” Cue women forced to sit in the back.

A teenager’s leg in a mini-skirt, with a measuring tape, is “just your daughter being humiliated at the school gate,” and then a sign forbidding women to walk on a pavement in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. And a young man at Pride Parade is “just [conversion] therapy. Nothing to make a fuss over. Just your freedom, to choose.” In Hebrew, choose and vote are the same word, and the Tiv Ta’am ad brilliantly summed up in 50 seconds all the fears of secular Israelis and sent them off to vote Netanyahu out of office.

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Because while the video’s theme was religious coercion and all the real and perceived ways that secular Israelis feel their normal lives are being interfered with by the ultra-Orthodox, this was only a very barely veiled call to vote for parties opposed to Netanyahu, the great enabler of Haredi power.

One sentence I heard repeatedly this election from ultra-Orthodox politicians and activists was “we never talked about a halakha (rabbinical law) state. We don’t want a theocracy.” And they’re right. Haredi ideology never saw Zionism and the State of Israel as anything but a secular entity. All their demands, even when they are aggressive and exaggerated, have always come under the umbrella of keeping to the hallowed “status quo” promised them by David Ben-Gurion in 1947, in return for their agreement that his Zionist organization would represent all Jews living in Mandatory Palestine in talks with the United Nations.

The Haredi interpretation of the “status quo” has for decades become incompatible with the circumstances of life in a modern society, but as far as the ultra-Orthodox are concerned, they are sticking to the original deal.

Ultra-orthodox activists for United Torah Judaism call voters from the party's headquarters, September 17, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

It wasn’t them who wanted to Judaize Israel. It was the messianist religious nationalists, following the words of Rabbi A. Y. Kook, who wrote that “the state of Israel is the foundation of God’s throne on earth,” even before there was a State of Israel.

One episode the ultra-Orthodox would love to erase from this election campaign was the speech three months ago by Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, founded by Rabbi Kook, where he spoke yearningly of “returning the law of the Torah to its place.” Smotrich of course is an ignoramus. The law of the Torah never fully applied among Jews or in their land, but that speech framed the entire election in the context of a secular struggle against a Jewish theocracy.

Nothing could have better served Avigdor Lieberman, who had used the excuse of the yeshiva-students conscription law to refuse to join Netanyahu’s coalition. And it will serve Kahol Lavan as well when they join the bandwagon of a “secular national-unity coalition.” The Haredim were caught in the crossfire between Netanyahu, trying to cling on to power and evade justice, and the opposition parties, which were quick to realize that targeting Netanyahu’s rock-solid alliance with the ultra-Orthodox politicians was perhaps the only way to shake secular voters from their apathy and motivate them to show Netanyahu the door. Now Netanyahu is finally on his way out, and with him, his Haredi partners are on their way to the opposition benches.

As the results came in on Tuesday night, the Haredi politicians rejoiced, at least outwardly. They had kept all their seats and even added on. Shas leader Arye Dery, whose party had won a ninth seat, said that “for years they erased us, they said Shas was finished.” But he knows full well that nine seats won’t do very much good in opposition. Without the interior and religious affairs ministries under control of his party apparatus, without an open door to the Prime Minister’s Office, Dery will be left unemployed on the back benches, waiting for an indictment on tax evasion.

The Haredi community went out on Tuesday as one, ordered by their rabbis to vote as they always are. This time they may have even eked out a higher turnout than usual. United Torah Judaism dragged the sagely Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky around the country for election rallies, which can’t have been easy for him at 91. They were imitating the Shas tours of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef before elections. Shas itself used Rabbi Ovadia’s image heavily in its campaign, and with nostalgic videos of Sephardi slichot prayers, won a few more votes of traditional Mizrahim who usually prefer Likud.

Shas Chairman Arye Dery in a campaign even in Holon, Israel, September 11, 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But an extra seat or two won’t extricate the Haredi politicians from the corner into which they’ve painted themselves by their pact with Netanyahu and Smotrich. Neither will the protestations that they never wanted a theocracy, just the status quo.

After 72 years, there’s an urgent need for a reassessment of the state-religion relationship in Israel. Not just to provide elemental things like civil marriage and public transport on Shabbat, but also to liberate young Haredi men from the yeshiva-army trap and allow them to join the workforce, which is what most of them want. The Haredi politicians and rabbis have sinned, chiefly against their own community, by entering the deal Netanyahu offered them, conserving a fossilized status quo in return for their unwavering political loyalty.

It wasn’t just the ultra-Orthodox who won more seats in this election. The Arabs did as well. In the new Knesset, Shas, UTJ and the Joint List now hold a total of 30 seats, a quarter of the Knesset. Two large, impoverished, excluded communities in Israel that are not going to be part of the government in the next few years. It’s due to Jewish racism against Arabs and secular hatred of Haredim, but not only. The Arab and ultra-Orthodox politicians also shoulder a portion of the blame for leading their communities into isolation. And at a time when young people in these two communities are yearning more than ever to integrate in to Israeli society.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at least tried to give a voice to the frustrated young Arab citizens of Israel in his interview with Yedioth Ahronoth last month where he listed the conditions under which he would join a coalition under Benny Gantz. But he was immediately slapped down by most of his party colleagues and retracted. At least he tried.

The ultra-Orthodox leadership of course wants to be in the coalition, every coalition. But the nonagenarian rabbis have no idea what a young Haredi man or woman is facing in modern Israel, and the Haredi political leaders who have been running their parties for a generation have put all their faith in Netanyahu and the status quo. They deserve to be banished to the opposition. Their voters don’t.

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