Fragile Religion-State Relations in Israel Hang in the Balance as New Government Takes Shape
Secular Jews and religious minorities are worried about their personal and religious freedoms
The delicate balance between religion and state in Israel has always been an explosive issue.
With coalition negotiations for the formation of a new government almost finalized, deliberations between the parties have exposed what could mark a major shift in the relationship between religion and state in Israel.
The list of demands of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, the cornerstone of the right-wing Likud party’s return to power, was leaked on Monday to Israeli media outlets.
The leaked content showed that many of UTJ’s demands center on a wide range of issues pertaining to the relationship between religion and state. It immediately caused a commotion in many Israeli circles.
The Likud, led by former prime minister and Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and the party that received the largest number of mandates in last month’s election, was quick to deny any agreements on the matters which referred to a wide range of daily-life issues in the public sphere.
Ranging from legislating the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service to considering a limitation on electricity production on the Jewish Sabbath, the proposals drew pushback from Netanyahu’s usual opponents on the left, as well as from his own party. The main constituents of the Likud, a traditionally liberal party, are not Orthodox Jews.
It has always been a tug of war, even in previous Netanyahu governments. Now what we are seeing is an all-out struggle between the camps on all fronts, especially on the Jewish nature of the public sphere.
In addition, there were UTJ demands for state funding of institutions that answer public questions on Jewish law, increasing the number of gender-segregated beaches, allowing Jews to refuse to be buried in a multi-tier grave, and providing more religious studies in secular schools.
“We were elected to lead the country in our own way – the way of the national and liberal right – and we will do so,” Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday morning, likely in response to the mounting criticism.
Speaking at Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Tuesday, the prime minister-designate vowed that the religious status quo would remain intact.
“Everybody will live according to their own beliefs,” he told the plenum.
The changes proposed are not only of concern to secular Jews. Israel is a country with a large minority of Arab citizens, who make up 20% of the population. Of over 9.5 million Israelis, only about 10% are identified as ultra-Orthodox, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Some 5% are identified as “other” religions.
The presence of far-right parties in the new coalition is alarming to these minorities.
“We are observing what is happening and have adopted a wait-and-see attitude,” said David Parsons, vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, “We do have concerns about some of the members of the coalition. In some ways, our level of comfort is rising, but there is still a way to go.”
Of particular concern is the attitude of Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultra-right-wing politician slated to become minister of national security. His religious-nationalist views are of concern to all minorities. Many see the new government as hostile to their presence in the country. Past participation of Ben-Gvir in racist events, such as photographing a political ally while the latter was tearing up a copy of the New Testament, have Christian leaders trying to come to terms with Israel’s new leadership.
“We have to trust that the incoming prime minister is a strong leader that is going to prevent that from ever becoming a problem,” Parsons said.
Ben-Gvir’s anti-Arab attitude has been widely documented.
Meanwhile, the latest developments have secular Jews worried about the fate of their personal and religious freedoms.
According to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the population growth of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country is the highest of any group, with an annual rate of 4%. The CBS projects that the percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society will grow to 16% by 2030 and will continue to rise consistently and quickly.
If once the Haredi parties were concerned with their own public’s interests, they now see themselves as major actors that have a vision of a country with a very specific Jewish character
This translates into political power which has now culminated in far-reaching demands that will impact the lives of all Israelis, regardless of their religion.
Historically, Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews have kept themselves secluded from other parts of society. Haredim, which means God-fearing, are zealous in safeguarding their stringent religious traditions. Any outside threat to their way of life is viewed with extreme caution. As their political power grows, they will have more ability to prevent such threats.
“It has always been a tug of war, even in previous Netanyahu governments,” said Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, director of the Center for Shared Society at the IDI. “Now what we are seeing is an all-out struggle between the camps on all fronts, especially on the Jewish nature of the public sphere.”
Throughout Israel’s history, ultra-Orthodox Jews have made it a point to differentiate themselves from the Zionist movement. Extreme elements within the Haredi community do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“They do not see themselves as an integral part of the state. Their political participation comes in order for them to enjoy their power and also influence the country, but not as part of it,” said Aharon Wiesner, an Israeli journalist who is an expert on the Haredi and religious populations. “As they have grown, they now dare to say things that they previously may have thought but did not articulate.”
There has been a gradual process of subtle changes in the assimilation of Haredi Jews into Israeli society. Their current participation in government could change that trend. While integration might not stop, it is now secular Jews who may be forced to adapt to major changes. There is no way to predict the impact of these two contradictory currents.
“What we are seeing are the foundations of a cultural war,” said Dr. Mouli Bentman, from the Department of Public Policy at Sapir College in southern Israel. “If once the Haredi parties were concerned with their own public’s interests, they now see themselves as major actors that have a vision of a country with a very specific Jewish character.”
Agreements reached by the Likud with other parties have already drawn criticism. Deals with far-right factions and also with Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, have already been inked.
All these deals and negotiations are set against the backdrop of the incoming government’s planned major judicial reforms. The main reform is an override clause which will allow the parliament to cancel any Supreme Court decision that would annul Knesset legislation with the approval of a simple majority of lawmakers.
For years, Haredi parties have been highly critical of the liberal-leaning Supreme Court which has often put the brakes on legislation that favors their interests.
Netanyahu, currently on trial on several counts of corruption and breach of trust, has his own alleged vested interest in weakening the courts, despite his categorical denial that he would use a weakened court to get out of his trial.
“There is now a convergence of interests in wanting to see a disruption of the balance between authorities,” Bentman said.
Democracy has to take into account what happens to the side that lost. The winning side has to acknowledge it can’t achieve everything it wanted. With no limits, it looks like the rules of the game are being unraveled.
According to Yitzik Crombie, a Haredi entrepreneur and author of “When the Haredim Will Be a Majority,” while the leaked list of UTJ demands represents the needs and desires of many in the Haredi public, it does not necessarily reflect their importance.
“Young Haredis are concerned about the quality of the education system and employment opportunities,” he explained. These demands do not appear on the leaked document but might have been addressed during coalition negotiations as well.
The status quo between religious and secular populations in Israel has always been a sticking point, but now the tone has become increasingly vicious. After over a year in the opposition, the Haredi parties are carrying the trauma of being the target of what they saw as pinpointed legislation against them by the outgoing government.
“There is a feeling that ‘they screwed us so now we want to screw them,’” said Crombie. “This is a very dangerous place to be in; we do not want to live in a society where each is only for his own. But this is also dangerous for the Haredi public that may not be in power forever and could be on the receiving end of such treatment.”
Coupled with the judicial reforms, changes in the relationship between state and religion have Netanyahu’s opponents concerned about the fate of Israeli democracy.
“Democracy has to take into account what happens to the side that lost,” said Ravitsky Tur-Paz. “The winning side has to acknowledge it can’t achieve everything it wanted. With no limits, it looks like the rules of the game are being unraveled.”
Israel’s new government is expected to be its most right-wing ever, reflecting years of polarization. The constant struggle over the status quo raises questions about its relevance and the need to change the balance, perhaps less aggressively.
“The struggle now looks like a struggle of identities and not an attempt to create a shared sphere of life for all citizens,” Bentman summarized.