Israel Is Beholden to the ultra-Orthodox Again

Secular politicians buy quiet in exchange for authority in religious services and the rabbinate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman
Emil Salman

In forming his fourth government, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how many political assets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has handed over to his coalition partners — portfolios, other powerful positions and budgets.

In the coalition agreements, dozens of clauses show that Netanyahu has put the country’s entire religious bureaucracy in the hands of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, fully aware that the few improvements here will be rolled back.

For most of the state’s history, religious services, with their broad influence and political appointments, have been considered the bastion of the religious parties. Netanyahu is perpetuating this — but this time flagrantly. As part of the fire sale, he has promised Shas and United Torah Judaism to undo Israel’s reforms in conversion law and the military draft, to cite just two examples. Checks and balances that have been added will be removed.

For example, the agreement with Shas includes a commitment that defies logic: Management of the rabbinical courts will be wrested from the Justice Ministry. Since 2004 the ministry has overseen the standards and ethics of rabbinical court judges. Now this supervision will return to the Religious Services Ministry, simply because Shas will control it.

The coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism includes a clause calling for a larger committee for appointing rabbinical court judges, so that there will be more coalition politicians and fewer women on the panel. UTJ has also been promised that orders calling for tiered burial, rather than in-ground burial, will be canceled in ultra-Orthodox cities — a massive waste of land.

This is the old way of doing business. Secular politicians from both right and left buy quiet in exchange for authority in religious services and the rabbinate, considered a fiefdom with no foothold for any party with a broader outlook.

This time Habayit Hayehudi chief Naftali Bennett is a party to the deal, defying most of his voters and his party’s political traditions. After abandoning the religious front to the Haredim so he could win the Justice Ministry for Ayelet Shaked, his shrill cries on religion and state during the coalition talks now ring hollow.

Many Jews in Israel have nothing to do with the rabbinate or the religious establishment, whether secular Jews or those who have found other ways to maintain their Jewish identity. The victims of the old-new political wheeling and dealing are those who seek to uphold tradition and marry and divorce under the laws of Moses and Israel. They don’t want to forgo kashrut, conversion and burial according to Jewish law.