While a snap election in Israel was averted recently, the steady drumbeat leading up to elections next year, if not sooner, are with us, and once again it is the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) who are beating the drums. As at many times in the past, the charedim have threatened to topple the government, with the pretext once again being the drafting of the charedim into the army. This issue is rooted in the inherent tension between religion and state in Israel stemming from the state’s dual identity — as both a Jewish and democratic state.
But the charedi community has changed. If in the past, its politicians saw themselves as responsible for the somewhat insular community they represent, the last few months indicate that they see themselves as responsible for no less than the Jewish character and identity of the entire country. They envision a state that is first and foremost charedi and, perhaps, with a far lower priority, democratic, as well. Whenever elections are held, issues of religion and state are, and should be, central to the election campaign. Charedi politicians and their political counterparts will struggle, along with the rest of the Israeli public, over the state’s Jewish character.
The question of drafting yeshiva students, like other issues of religion and state — such as the nature of Shabbat in Israel, conversion, marriage and divorce and more — have been with us from the establishment of the state. In the past, these issues toppled governments, created serious splits among the Israeli public and served as a pretext for recurring coalition crises. The difference this time around, though, is that while in the past the party that championed the Jewish identity state was the National Religious Party, a religious Zionist party, today it is the charedi parties, which are much more fundamentalist.
In many ways, the “status quo” agreement (the political agreement between religious and secular political parties not to alter the collective arrangement in relation to religious matters) has eroded over the years. This is due in part to Supreme Court rulings, along with growing commercial interests fighting the closing of businesses on Shabbat, and activities of civic organizations striving to promote pluralism and create alternatives to the religious services of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. In recent months, among other actions, the ultra-Orthodox have been trying to counteract the more liberal rulings of the Supreme Court, in order to turn the country into what they refer to in Knesset debates and media statements as a “truly” Jewish state. That suggests enforcing a strict legal system rather than working out issues through dialogue between the different sectors in society.
In previous election campaigns, issues of religion and state were pushed aside by party leaders. This was in part out of fear of the disproportionate power held by the charedim in Israel’s parliamentary system (the Netanyahu government has a tissue-thin, one-vote majority), but also due to the sense that the subject didn’t really interest voters.
Over and over again, though, all of us are paying the price for this negligence; it has created a situation in which, after each election, the charedi parties end up dictating the agenda on these issues. Again and again, Supreme Court decisions and the desire expressed by most Israeli citizens for a state whose Jewish identity is more pluralistic hit a brick wall. They come up against the dictates of the charedim, who impose their values and worldview on the Israeli public.
No matter when they take place, the upcoming elections will have a decisive impact on the identity of the state if decision-makers and the general public continue to follow the ultra-Orthodox lead. If decision-makers and the general public don’t step up to the plate to fight for their position on this critically important issue, the majority of Israeli citizens will find themselves living in a country that does not reflect their Jewish identity.
The ongoing indifference of most politicians, on the one hand, and the powerful motivation of the charedim to influence the Jewish identity of the state, on the other, have taken their toll. In the next elections, politicians from all parties must be brave and take a clear stance on these issues. Otherwise, within a few years, we may find ourselves living in a state that is clearly charedi but, only possibly, also democratic.
Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Nationhood, Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a law lecturer at the Peres Academic Center.