To Israel's Next Prime Minister, Don't Cave to ultra-Orthodox Parties

In your desperate effort to form a coalition, remember Diaspora Jews and don't allow the Haredim to roll back religious reforms.

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Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, center, at an ultra-Orthodox rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, center, at an ultra-Orthodox rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

I have an urgent request for the next prime minister of Israel: Don’t forget the religious concerns of Diaspora Jewry when you form your government.

Yet, I am realistic. Whether the incumbent premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, or his main rival, Isaac Herzog, leads the next government, it is likely that the Haredim will be a part of his coalition. The ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas, Yahad and United Torah Judaism – are, according to the polls, expected to receive only 15 percent of the vote, but whoever is asked by the president to form a government will likely need them to form a coalition.

We can be certain that the new prime minister will pay a heavy price for the Haredi parties' participation. For when they wield power, much of the progress made in the last two years in the realm of religion and state will be reversed.

The outgoing government was the first in a long time that didn't include any ultra-Orthodox parties. With Yesh Atid scoring enough votes to become the second-largest faction, and its partnership agreement with Habayit Hayehudi, Netanyahu was almost forced to accept them both into his coalition at the expense of his "natural partners," the Haredim. In their absence, the government initiated various reforms concerning religion and the religious communities (although, in truth, they did not go very far).

This year, however, if the Haredi parties do make it into the next coalition, they will likely roll back some of the progress made. While they may do so by demanding the outright appeal of the last government's reforms, I suspect they are more likely to ask for indefinite delays or simply refuse to implement what reforms that have already been decided upon, knowing that the government will not call them to account for fear they might bolt the coalition and thus dissolve the government.

Among the achievements of the outgoing government was introducing legislation that calls for the equal sharing of the burden of military service. The legislation, which does not take full effect until 2017, calls for drafting Haredim and imposing criminal sanctions on those who dodge the draft. The Haredim have demanded these sanctions be eliminated, and Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to do so. Herzog will almost certainly agree as well, in his desperate effort to piece together a coalition. With the Haredim standing in the way of imposing alternative sanctions on draft-dodgers, we are unlikely to see a significant increase in the number of Haredim who serve their country in the army or national service.

Similarly, Israel’s government decided in 2013 to compel ultra-Orthodox schools to teach core curricula – Hebrew, English and math – with the goal of giving Haredi children the skills necessary for providing for themselves and their families in a modern society. However, in response to pressure of the Haredim, the government backed off from enforcing this regulation. During coalition negotiations, the Haredi parties will undoubtedly demand additional delays.

There are also issues that will impact Diaspora Jewry directly. For decades, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has maintained strict Orthodox rulings on conversions to Judaism in the country, while rejecting various kinds of conversions performed abroad. Last year, the government adopted a very limited reform that would increase the number of Israeli Orthodox rabbis who can perform conversions. But the measure was a weak one that could be rescinded by the Cabinet without Knesset approval, and it left ultimate control in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. The effectiveness of the measure already seems to be limited, with the Sephardic chief rabbi vowing not to validate these conversions. With anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and Israel appealing to Jews in endangered communities to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), a sensible Israeli conversion policy is a vital Jewish interest. But, with Haredi parties in Israel’s next government, the chances of it adopting such a policy would be slight to none.

Finally, there is the question of Women of the Wall. Diaspora Jews were inspired and galvanized by the courage and daring of these women. They toned down their activism during negotiations for a meaningful compromise, based on a proposal by Natan Sharansky, but a deal was not struck, as negotiations were postponed to after these elections. If the ultra-Orthodox parties wield power in the new government, the chances of reaching an agreement will greatly diminish and the likelihood of the group ramping up its struggle at the Western Wall will greatly increase.

Haredi rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

There is no magic solution here. Even with their modest numbers of seats, the ultra-Orthodox parties are almost certain to once again be the balance of power in these elections. When facing them, he who wishes to be the next prime minister of Israel, and who professes to speak on behalf of the Jewish people, should remember this: The Jews of America and the world want a Jewish state that welcomes Jews of all streams and persuasions, that grants religious freedom to all her Jewish – and non-Jewish – citizens, and reflects the best of Western, democratic values.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.

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