The Day Netanyahu Capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox

Next time the prime minister urges Jews worldwide to immigrate to Israel, we should all remember the day he betrayed immigration and spat in the faces of 350,000 Israeli citizens defined as 'having no religion.'

Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, France, January 11, 2015.
Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, France, January 11, 2015.Credit: AP

The next time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauds immigration to Israel and urges Jews worldwide, including those whom Jewish law doesn’t recognize as Jews, to immigrate to their “national home,” we should all remember the day he betrayed immigration and spat in the faces of more than 350,000 Israeli citizens – new immigrants and their children and grandchildren who are defined as “having no religion” – who fulfill all their obligations to the state.

On Sunday, at the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Netanyahu canceled the conversion reform that his previous government had approved, which would have allowed municipal rabbis to set up their own conversion courts – a small step toward those who, despite all their justified suspicions of the process, were nevertheless willing to put their trust in the state-run conversion system. And this is just one of a series of decisions adopted on Sunday on issues of religion and state, in all of which Netanyahu made one thing crystal clear: His political survival is more important than the national interest.

Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, should also be reminded of this day. In a speech last November, after the cabinet approved the conversion reform, Bennett boasted of the move (which he didn’t spearhead), saying, “The future of the Jewish people isn’t a matter for political machinations by extremists on both sides.”

Political machination is the perfect definition of Bennett’s move on Sunday: Even though he voted against the cabinet decision in order to salve his conscience, in practice, he has abandoned both the immigrants and those of his party’s voters who were lured by his empty declarations about “our brothers, the converts.”

Shas and United Torah Judaism have 13 seats altogether. Yet the other 48 members of the coalition permitted them, without a fight, to realize all their heart’s desires on issues of religion and state: reinforcing the rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, tightening the chief rabbis’ control over conversion, and as the cherry on top, transferring responsibility for the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, which Shas controls.

The situation that prevailed before these changes wasn’t ideal. The state conversion system has been in steady decline, among other reasons, due to the acts and omissions of the last two prime ministers, Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. The rabbinical courts are stagnating, in part because the Justice Ministry, which has been responsible for them since 2004, failed in all its attempts to appoint more rabbinical court judges and to otherwise improve the system.

A responsible government would have shaken up these systems rather than reviving the old, bad deal whereby the government hands the management of religious services over to the ultra-Orthodox parties in exchange for political quiet. What all three of these decisions, on kashrut, conversion and the rabbinical courts, have in common is that they have no substantive justification other than political survival. They are the mess of pottage that Netanyahu is serving the ultra-Orthodox in order to survive.

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