Israeli Election Coverage, Part II: the Role of Religion

In light of Israel’s forthcoming municipal elections, I’ve decided to produce a series on Israeli politics. It is available as a video below, but if you can’t/don’t want to watch, a slightly expanded article to the same effect is also further down.

II: The Place of Religion

If you’re from the United States, where religious affiliation is very much seen as a marketplace of ideas, it may be hard to grasp what it means for Israel to be the Jewish state, because most of the early Zionists were not only atheists, but explicitly viewed religious devotion as something that had kept them victims of gentile oppression; and that establishing a state for the Jewish people would unfreeze Jewish culture from this prison of orthodoxy.

Most Orthodox Jews at the time similarly opposed the Zionist mission because they saw it as playing God, because only the messiah could restore the Jewish state and then it would have to be a monarchy and the temple would be rebuilt. Over time, a religious Zionist movement did come into being, but it was a very small minority.

In 1949, the War of Independence ended, and the first parliamentary yielded a very convincing victory for the left, with David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai1 coming in first place and Meir Yaari’s Mapam2 coming in second. The problem with this though was that Mapam supported a right of return for Arabs who had been expelled from what became most of Israel in the early part of the war.

If Ben-Gurion had agreed to this, it would have meant that the Jewish State would not have had a Jewish majority, so instead of reaching out to Mapam, he reached all the way over in the other direction to the United Religious Front, as well as some others like the General Zionists and the Democratic List of Nazareth (an Arab party). In order to form a coalition, the different parties have to agree to support each other’s policies, and because the URF were such a big part of the coalition, they had a ton of leverage to make policy on behalf of religious Jews.

The first of the URF’s demands was that the Haredim, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, would be deferred from military conscription, which was amended into a full exemption in the 2000s, and would receive special welfare benefits in order to continue their study of the Torah rather than enter the workforce. You must remember at the time that there were only 2,500 Haredi men in all of Israel at that time; Ultra-Orthodox Judaism had been nearly driven to extinction by the Holocaust, so allowing the Haredim to continue their tradition as seen as rescuing a piece of intangible heritage.

The problem with this is that the Haredim ended up having children at a much higher rate than the general public, and have since grown to 10% of the total population, but are still mostly exempt from military service and from the workforce, and there’s a ton of resentment against them. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Promises, the two twin Israeli boys come from a family of secular Jews who hate the Haredim far more than they hate the Arabs, and I can confidently say that’s the norm.

The second demand was that Israel maintain the Ottoman system of confessional law. So criminal law and most forms of civil law is carried out by the state, but if you want to marry or divorce, you have to go through your state-sanctioned religious authority with its own court system. If you’re Jewish, this means Orthodox Judaism, since Reform and Conservative Judiasm are unrecognized and performing marriages under them is actually illegal. And once upon a time, this wasn’t such a big deal, because your local rabbi was just your local rabbi. But today, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has been totally taken over by the Haredim, and what was once just a community of faith leaders is now tranforming itself into a massive bureaucracy like the Vatican. This issue has become much more visible with the emerging global consensus around gay marriage, which obviously you can’t do here because the Chief Rabbis won’t allow it.

Originally, cities and countries had Chief Rabbis to act as representatives of the Jewish minority population in various parts of the world. But what purpose does a Chief Rabbinate have in a majority Jewish state, except to go mad with power?

For example, in order for Jews to marry in Israel, both parties must present copies of their parents’ marriage certificates. For an immigrant like me, that means both a state certification and a separate religious one. Even then, I may be denied because my father isn’t Jewish, or because the rabbi officiated an interfaith wedding, or because he was Reform, or just because the Rabbinate blacklisted him for criticizing their consolidation of power. It’s no wonder that many Israelis choose to elope abroad or not marry at all, which can create all sorts of new legal issues.

The official status of the Rabbinate was part of a larger agreement called the Status Quo, which affects everyday life because it mandates that the country at large observe Shabbat. So every Friday night and Saturday, there’s no public transportation except in Haifa and Nazareth, and businesses have to close. Now, many cities, especially in the Tel Aviv region, have passed their own bylaws allowing businesses to stay open. But in response, the current government recently passed the Supermarkets Law, which gives the Interior Minister unilateral power to override these cities, albeit without any enforcement power over them.

In 1949, “status quo” meant that neither secular nor religious Israelis would interfere in each others’ internal affairs. Those days are over. For secular Jews in the opposition, the popular term for this is kafia datit, or “religious coercion.” And in 2018, you’d think that the country would have moved past this. After all, these rules are wildly unpopular. But they’ve stayed in place, and in the case of the Supermarkets Law have expanded, because of ultra-Orthodox political parties, which frequently play a decisive role in the ability to form coalition governments.

Today there are two. United Torah Judaism3 makes policy on behalf of a self-appointed council of rabbis called the sages, and is a non-zionist party because, again, many ultra-orthodox Jews do not recognize Israel, even as they depend on it to survive. Shas4 is more populist and militant and less Eurocentric. Notably the leader of Shas is Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the mastermind behind the Supermarkets Law and also a convicted felon owing to a corruption case when he was a minister in a previous cabinet.

In 2013, the party Yesh Atid5 was formed on an anti-clerical platform, and while opposition to religious coercion is standard policy among the left and center, Yesh Atid really seized on the issue and campaigns almost exclusively on it.

Since the formation of Yesh Atid, there has been some pushback on this religionization. Incremental quotas have been established for Haredi men, although those who answer the call are usually ostracized by their friends and family and often leave the faith altogether.

The Haredi community has frequently reacted with violence against the military and police, as well as civilians, including other religious Jews. And since all the current religious parties are in the government and most of the anti-clerical parties are in the opposition, the fundamentals of the issue won’t change anytime soon.

But if any political issue is driving the general public right now, it’s this one. The battle over religious coercion is a battle over whom and by whom you are allowed to marry, what you can do on your weekend, who among us is truly responsible for the nation’s defense, and even our precious economy.

Next week I’ll discuss that economy, what it means for Israel, and what it means to the voters. If you liked the video, feel free to share it. If you have any suggestions or questions, please offer them in the comments. And as in all other threads, respect the site guidelines and do not threaten any Mayors McSquirrel.