Opinion

Fighting the ultra-Orthodox Moloch

The assumption that we can depend on the High Court of Justice to change the status quo on state and religion may soon be exposed as unfounded

Ultra-Orthodox Jews study Jewish texts in Modiin Ilit, on July 31, 2017
Gil Cohen-Magen

In the prevailing chaos in the status quo on state and religion, whoever has more power has the upper hand, today more than ever. When every proposal can become law merely by paying off the interested parties, civil liberties and religious pluralism in Israel almost naturally fall prey to the ultra-Orthodox moloch.

The assumption that we can depend on the High Court of Justice to change the status quo on state and religion may soon be exposed as unfounded, when a flood of ultra-Orthodox legislation bypasses the court’s recent rulings and pulls the status quo in favor of the Haredim. The only thing that can change this trend are the secular and moderate-religious communities, who must wake up and exert significant pressure on the politicians.

A number of High Court rulings have recently altered existing regulations on religion and state, creating a new reality. The court recognized Orthodox conversion held outside the Chief Rabbinate; it recognized a business owner’s right to declare his merchandise kosher even without a certificate from the Chief Rabbinate, thus shattering the rabbinate’s monopoly on the kashrut market; and recognized the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw enabling limited commercial activity on Shabbat. The court also took away the interior minister’s authority to intervene in municipal bylaws dealing with Shabbat commerce. In all these cases, the court had made great efforts not to intervene and issued its ruling only after the Knesset failed to reach a decision.

In response, the ultra-Orthodox are beating the political drums again and threatening not to cooperate with the coalition, or to quit it completely. They have submitted a series of proposals intended to bypass the High Court’s verdicts and strengthen the Orthodox-Haredi monopoly in kashrut, conversion, Shabbat work permits and the rabbinical courts’ authority. They are conveying a clear message in the media, cabinet and Knesset: We have the power to control the state’s mechanisms and we will use it.

On the secular side, the response is almost complete silence. Most coalition and opposition MKs would rather sit on the fence and support the ultra-Orthodox bills. Those in the coalition want to avoid breaking it up, while opposition MKs dream of gaining power and don’t want to antagonize future potential partners. So they refrain from making statements on state and religion issues; why annoy the Haredim?

However, this situation is not new. In recent election campaigns, as well as between them, the ultra-Orthodox dictated the state-religion agenda and most politicians were willing to pacify them off to avoid a coalition crisis. Even when there was a way to a historic agreement over the major issues – Shabbat, freedom of marriage, conversion and religious services – fear of the ultra-Orthodox paralyzed most politicians.

This is a tragedy that endangers Judaism and Israel’s Jewish image. The main component of the state’s constitutional identity (alongside democracy) should be determined by discussion that suits a majority of the public. Instead it is being decided by violence. The political center, where most voters and politicians stand, should deal with shaping the status quo. Instead it is determined by radical discourse on both ends, brute political force and the involuntary intervention of the High Court.

The only way to change this is to get the public to take an active interest in how the Jewish democratic state is being shaped. Only if non-Haredi politicians see that these issues interest their voters will they deal with them. Only pressure over those issues will generate interest. As long as the mainstream public isn’t ready to go to the wall over the status quo, we will face a Haredi veto that will regulate the status quo as it sees fit.

Unless we come to our senses, on Israel’s 70th anniversary next year we will be “celebrating” our having become a Haredi democracy, rather than a Jewish democracy.

Dr. Friedman is director of the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, and a member of the Peres Academic Center’s law faculty.