Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Are Starting to Surrender

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People at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, June 6, 2019.
People at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, June 6, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently tweeted a promise that Israel wouldn’t be a state of Jewish law. The public doesn’t believe him. Didn’t Netanyahu also basically respond the same way when asked if he would try to obtain immunity from prosecution in the corruption cases against him?

In Israel there’s a clear trend of an increasing presence of religion and religious coercion in matters such as marriage, divorce, conversion, burial, Shabbat observance, the exclusion of women and gender segregation. All these things have been increasing under Netanyahu, who forged an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox – the Haredim – and messianic parties.

>> Read more: Why Israel will never be governed by Jewish religious law | Opinion 

This trend relies entirely on the political power of the religious community, and on Likud’s surrender to its partners in the governing coalition. Even if the Union of Right-Wing Parties ultimately receives the education and transportation portfolios, ministerial appointments are just a small part of a much deeper process that includes draft exemptions for the Haredim, larger budgets for yeshivot and rabbis, and strengthening the Rabbinate’s and the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly on matters including kashrut, Shabbat and conversion.

But alongside this trend, whose strength derives from legally sanctioned coercion and control over ministries and budgets, there is an opposite trend. In the public space, culture and the media, free and liberal Israel is winning. The power of the cabinet, the ministries, the Rabbinate and the Knesset Finance Committee is weakening in these areas, to the delight of the large and free segment of Israelis who wish to live normal lives without coercion, discrimination or segregation.

Two examples from recent weeks illustrate the strength of this positive trend. The Eurovision final was held in Tel Aviv on a Saturday night, after Shabbat was over, but the staging of the entire competition entailed a tremendous amount of Shabbat violations. And this month brought the Jerusalem Pride Parade into the heart of the holy city. Tens of thousands of people took part, and the event enjoyed broad public support. These are two important events that drew extensive media coverage and were much discussed.

For the most part, the Haredim chose to keep quiet and shun large protests and threats. They chose restraint, which makes one wonder how the Haredim, who can bring an entire country to a standstill over the transport of a transformer for the electric company on Shabbat, could remain silent in amid what they consider abominations. True, right now there’s no government that can be brought down, but that’s not enough to explain the silence and absence of major protests against these two big events. It appears they’re conceding here.

Some explain the Haredi silence by saying that a focus on LGBT rights and Eurovision could expose young Haredim to this cultural world that threatens them. There is a real fear of exposure to “the other” and contact with the free, secular and liberal.

There was no compromise here. The Eurovision production involved major violations of the sanctity of Shabbat, and the pride parade is viewed by the Haredim as an abomination. What happened in these instances was something else – Haredi surrender. It was a marking of the limits of the Haredim’s power and evidence that even now, a time of success at the polls, and euphoria and confidence in the religious community, they realize their limitations and fear the power of free culture to penetrate their world.

The coalition structure of government in Israel, combined with Likud’s willingness to surrender to Haredi demands, gives this community disproportionate power over legislation, the running of government ministries, the military draft and the budget. But they can't obscure the fact that in Israeli society a majority still exists unwilling to live in a state governed by religious law. This majority, which hasn’t successfully converted its numbers into political power, can still make itself felt in the street, in the free market and in culture and leisure activity. Here we still have power, the power we lack in the Knesset.

Avigdor Lieberman may have begun to grasp this. In Israel as a whole, not just among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there is a majority against closing down the country on Shabbat, against discrimination against women and the LGBT community, against religious coercion and exemptions for Haredi young men regarding the draft and the job market.

The power in government of the Haredim, who are supported by “traditional” Jewish voters at the polls, can be met with the power of the secular majority, supported by the traditional community in the public space. The public shows its strength at major events, at parades, with its purchasing power (which can be used to support nonkosher establishments), in egalitarian marriage ceremonies outside the Rabbinate, and in public transportation on Shabbat in free cities.

There is also the potential to attract some of the religious community too and open a window onto a freer life. The people can have their say not only in the general election, but in life itself.

Dr. Yuval Karniel, an expert on law and media, is a founder of the group Be Free Israel.

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