Third Netanyahu government stymied by 'shadow of the ultra-Orthodox'

Since 1981, at least one of the haredi parties has been a coalition partner in 11 out of the 15 governments.

By
December 5, 2014 07:06
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a reinterment ceremony for Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson and his wife Frances in the agricultural cooperative of Avihayil north of Netanya. (photo credit: REUTERS)

One of the most striking aspects of the 33rd government of Israel was the absence of the two haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – from the coalition.

Since 1981, at least one of the haredi parties has been a coalition partner in 11 out of the 15 governments since that time.

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Their absence in the now defunct 33rd government was enforced by the demands and ideology of the man who emerged as a central force on the political scene following the January 2013 elections, Yair Lapid.

And one of the primary goals of Lapid and his Yesh Atid party was to roll back entitlements secured by the haredi parties for their sector, get haredi men into the army and the workforce, and secure a raft of measures that would loosen the grip of the Orthodox religious establishment over the life-cycle choices of the general public.

It was because of the desire to implement this agenda that Lapid was so adamant in his refusal to sit with the haredi parties in government, and their absence from it was considered a considerable opportunity to force through reforms on these issues.

Additionally, the national-religious party Bayit Yehudi also promised that it would seek to instill a more moderate and welcoming approach in the religious establishment.

After some 20 months of the outgoing government, serious concerns have been expressed by the progress, or lack thereof, on some of the most pressing concerns regarding religious life in the country.



Prof. Yedidia Stern, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s religion and state project and dean of the Law Faculty at Bar-Ilan University, notes that the 32nd government actually fell apart due to a crisis over one of these issues – that of haredi conscription.

But he does not view favorably the flagship legislation for haredi conscription that was forced through by Yesh Atid to address this problem.

One of the crucial problems with the law for haredi conscription is that implementation of mandatory service was delayed until 2017. Until then, the government has a series of targets, but only in 2017 will missing those targets have any real consequences.

“If a new coalition includes the haredi parties, which looks likely, they will condition their entry on changing the law to fit their demands,” says Stern.

And notice of such a deal was given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his press conference on Tuesday night explaining why he had fired Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and was calling for new elections.

Netanyahu said explicitly that he disagreed with the criminal sanctions clause of the conscription law.

Additionally, Stern says that the law has served to alienate the haredi public from military service because of its ideological opposition to the criminal sanctions clause.

The legislation that was passed states that after 2017, if targets are not met, haredi men who refuse to enlist will be subject, like all other Jewish men, to two years imprisonment.

Haredi men of military age are, to a large extent, engaged in full-time religious study at yeshiva, and hardline haredi leaders have been able to successfully portray the new law as the criminalization of Torah study.

Initial figures for haredi enlistment at the beginning of this year after the law was passed showed a significant decrease in haredi enlistment, and although recent IDF figures released by the Knesset oversight and implementation committee for the law suggest enlistment has reached previous levels, concerns have been voiced about the veracity of the figures and the definition of “haredi” used by the IDF.

Enlistment for the Civilian Service program, which is an alternative for haredim to perform national service, has decreased and targets are unlikely to be met for the 2014/2015 enlistment year.

Shahar Ilan, the deputy director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, says that although the haredi parties will condition their entry into a coalition government on repealing the criminal sanctions clause, there will be legal difficulties for any attempt to rid the law of all penalties for refusing to enlist.

Economic sanctions could possibly replace criminal ones, but the extent and efficacy of economic sanctions agreed to by the haredi parties are questionable.

Still, Ilan says that any revisions to the law need to be able to pass the test of equality for the High Court of Justice, or at least allow the State Attorney to make a viable defense of the law.

In terms of increasing haredi employment, Ilan says that the government was successful in cutting yeshiva budgets and child allotments, which has led to an increase in the numbers of haredim in the workforce, although primarily women and not men.

The budget for yeshiva stipends was drastically reduced from over NIS 1 billion to NIS 600 million.

Child allotments were cut, specifically those provided by previous governments that gave significantly greater sums for a family’s fourth child and up, which benefited the haredi community, since large families in this sector are common.

During the life of the outgoing government, female haredi employment rose from 74.4% at the beginning of 2013 to 79.5% in the second quarter of 2014, above the national average for women which stands at 75.3%, a rise that could be attributed to the decrease in state funding to the haredi sector.

Male haredi employment has remained static, however, and even declined from a high of 46.2% at the beginning of 2013 to 44.7% today, compared to the national average of 85.5%.

However, the budget cuts implemented at the behest of Yesh Atid could be a temporary phenomenon and the funds could start flowing again, once haredi MKs gain ministerial portfolios and positions of influence in Knesset committees that they were denied while in opposition.

Alongside budget cuts to the haredi sector has been the provision of funds to hitherto maligned destinations such as Jewish pluralist and renewal organizations, but these allocations may be as fragile as the cuts to the haredi sector.

Enforcing the teaching of core curriculum subjects in haredi elementary schools was another important government objective, but implementation was recently postponed till 2017, like haredi conscription, and will now be in danger of repeal or revision.

In May 2013, the government approved a decision that would require haredi elementary schools to teach at least 11 hours of English, Hebrew and math, defined as the basic curriculum, in order to get the highest level of state funding available to such schools.

Implementation was supposed to have started this year and increased to the full 11 hours on a gradual basis, culminating in full implementation in the 2016/17 academic year.

Schools not complying with these stipulations were to have been subject to a heavy reduction in state funding, facing cuts from 75% of the budget received by regular state-funded schools to just 30%.

However, the Education Ministry backed away from this time frame, citing a lack of haredi teachers able to teach math and English, as well as a lack of inspectors able to enforce the mandatory teaching hours for the core curriculum.

Implementation is now slated to begin only in the 2017/18 academic year. No efforts were made to compel haredi high schools to teach core curriculum subjects.

One area of reform that was repeatedly promised by Yesh Atid was provision for civil unions.

Israeli law gives the established religious authorities – such as the Chief Rabbinate in the case of Judaism – exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce.

Since marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is prohibited by Jewish law, and there is no arrangement for civil marriage or unions, the approximately 330,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jewish according to Jewish law are unable to marry in Israel.

On several occasions Lapid said he would advance civil marriage, but all proposed legislation on the issue foundered, largely due to the opposition of Bayit Yehudi.

After the January 2013 elections Lapid also promised to secure equal legal status for non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in terms of marriage and conversion, but no legislation was advanced to address this matter.

One area of relative success in the realm of marriage was the approval of the so-called Tzohar law, named after the organization backing it, which abolished marriage registration districts.

The law was designed to guarantee the ability of couples seeking to get married to register outside of the jurisdiction of their local rabbinate and was passed into law by the Knesset in October 2013. The passage of the legislation has created increased competition between local rabbinates for the NIS 700 marriage registration fee, which, it is hoped, will lead to an improvement in the service provided by these institutions.

Additionally, it solves another serious problem in which converts, whose local rabbinate refuses to recognize their Orthodox state conversion, can successfully register for marriage with a more amenable rabbinate.

The “Tzohar law” relates only to Orthodox marriages conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox religious establishment, however, and does not deal with the broader issue of the tens of thousands of citizens who do not have the right to marry in Israel.

Another reform that was recently approved was the conversion reform law, which allows municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions.

The idea behind the law was to widen access to the conversion system for non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and to allow the implementation of more liberal attitudes to conversion within the Orthodox world for such people, including the conversion of minors.

Although this law was hailed as an important step forward by the modern-Orthodox world in combating interfaith marriage and partnerships in Israel, it was passed only as a government order, not full-fledged legislation.

Repealing a law issued as a government order requires only a separate government order, and so this reform faces significant danger, since Shas and United Torah Judaism vigorously opposed it. Should they enter the next coalition, reversing this decision is likely to be high on their agenda.

Ilan cites the lack of political experience in the Yesh Atid ranks as one of the main reasons behind the failures to pass meaningful reforms in all of these areas, especially the granting of a veto on issues of religion and state to Bayit Yehudi, which allowed the party to stymie much of the Yesh Atid agenda on such issues.

According to Stern, the failure to tackle and successfully pass reforms on some of the most pressing issues is twofold: the prime minister’s concern for his future political relationship with the haredi parties, and the general population’s lack of concern about such issues.

“It’s true that haredim weren’t in the current coalition, but the shadow of the haredim was always there,” said Stern. “There was no political ambition in the ruling party to change the reality on religion and state, because it saw, apparently correctly, that the haredim would reappear as a major force in the next election, and this paralyzed the coalition from moving ahead on these issues.”

Stern pointed to the ever-increasing popularity of Bayit Yehudi, as reflected by public opinion polls, and its efforts in frequently blocking religion and state reforms, as evidence of the lack of will by the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, to expend serious political capital on such issues, as well as the seeming indifference of the public to them.

“The haredi political leaders can’t go back to their camps having been defeated on issues of religion and state; it’s too important for them,” he said. “But the other side is not willing to kill itself over such issues, as the haredim are, and so much of the potential for change was lost.”


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