Why Have Most Religious Israelis Stayed Away From Housing Protests?

The protest has given pause to some on the political right in the religious community out of suspicion as to what the movement really stands for.

Among those protesting the cost of housing there is some representation from the religious community, but for the most part, religious Jews have fallen outside the pale of the tents. Why is this?

1. Many religious Jewish Israelis would indeed take to the streets over the shortage of affordable housing, which also affects them, but the protest has expanded beyond the housing issue, which has given pause to some on the political right in the religious community out of suspicion as to what the movement really stands for.

A religious protester - Gil Cohen Magan - July 27 2011
Gil Cohen Magan

Even if the spokesmen for the demonstrators don't come out condemning the West Bank settlements and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it is expressed only on the margins, any left wing views resonate powerfully on the religious right. And of course, the involvement of the New Israel Fund alone would be enough to rule out participation for some in light of what many feel is an anti-Zionist or post-Zionist stance by the group.

2. When it comes to ultra-Orthodox Jews, the situation is more complex in light of the fact that housing problems are an acute issue. The ultra-Orthodox press has reported extensively on the issue for years, reporting statistics on the extent of the problem, along with heartbreaking personal accounts of people living in garbage rooms and the like. The reporting also contained moderate criticism of ultra-Orthodox politicians such as Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, both of Shas.

So why are the Haredim so silent in the face of the protest? It's not just become some commentators see the protesters as self-indulgent Tel Avivians or due to worries over excessive solidarity with secular citizens, but also because the Haredim have gone on the defensive over reports in the secular public that Atias and Shas favor Haredim in issuing public housing tenders.

The protest is now being seen as an assault on the Haredi community in general and not just on a cabinet minister, leading everyone to close ranks. The Haredi newspaper Yated Ne'eman Monday called the allegations anti-Semitic, arguing that the Finance Ministry and the media are choosing "to accuse the Haredim of stealing state land from unfortunate secular citizens. There is no limit to cynicism. There is no limit to incitement."

3. Rabbi Yuval Sherlo of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, which combines religious study and military service, is active in social causes. Not this time, however. In an article on the yeshiva's website, he wrote that he is not convinced the protest movement is really a social protest. He explains his reticence to get involved is "not due to the fact that the demands are not justified, and not due to the fact that [the protest] is political (in a big way! ), but for two reasons."

First, he said, he had the sense that it is actually the current government more than any of its predecessors that has been working to solve the housing problem, making the current protests a sign of populism and reflecting a desire for quick fixes for a problem that has been going on for years.

Sherlo explained his major concern, however, as follows: "Genuine protest on issues involving justice and law is when people fight for the rights of others and not when they fight for their desire for a solution to their own problems. It's very legitimate for a person to fight for his own rights, but I wouldn't call that real social protest. When we fight for the rights of outsourced workers, shopping mall guards, access for people with disabilities, etc., that is social protest, and there it is very appropriate for the rabbinical world to take a leading role. When we're dealing with the housing protest, it's an entirely different matter."