Religious Affairs: How close are we to a ‘Jewish Republic’ of Israel?

A look into the heavy political clout of the haredi parties that could eventually impact the nation’s tenuous religious-secular balance.

HAREDIM WALK in Jerusalem in front of a ‘Men Only’ sign – the role of religion in public life will likely increase due to demographic trends and the high birth rate in the haredi and national-religious sectors. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
HAREDIM WALK in Jerusalem in front of a ‘Men Only’ sign – the role of religion in public life will likely increase due to demographic trends and the high birth rate in the haredi and national-religious sectors.
Headlines this week were dominated by the biblical death penalty of stoning, gender segregation and talk in general of a “halachic state” in the mold of some other Middle Eastern countries with hard-line religious conservative elements in power.
These stories were generated after joint leader of the Union of Right-Wing Parties and aspiring justice minister Bezalel Smotrich said during a radio interview that he wants the State of Israel in the long term “to be governed by Halacha [Jewish law],” and that the Torah is a better code of law than other legal systems Israeli law is based on.
His words generated an outpouring of condemnation from numerous political figures on the Center-Left, and even a rebuke from the prime minister, who tweeted in response that Israel is not headed for halachic rule.
But beyond the political posturing and point scoring, what is Israel’s reality in 2019, where is the country headed in its attitude to religion, and is a “halachic state” really something to be concerned about?
RABBI RONEN LUBICH, president of the liberally inclined National-Religious lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, is highly skeptical of claims that Israel will slip into an overtly religious state governed by Jewish law, as envisioned by doom mongers comparing Israel to the Islamic Republic of Iran and other theocracies.
The rabbi said that the notion of governing the State of Israel by Halacha is technically impossible for two main reasons: the lack of consensus as to who can legitimately issue decisions of a halachic nature, and the obstacles to the rule of Jewish law presented by modern life.
“We are not getting closer to rabbinical agreement, but going further apart. There is no agreed-upon authority or institution that makes religious decisions which are accepted by everyone,” observed Lubich.
And halachic restrictions and strictures pertaining to banking and interest charges, Israeli agriculture, and Sabbath observance would severely damage the country’s ability to function as a modern state, he argued.
Additionally, using Jewish law to govern the State of Israel would have a negative effect on the rights and equality of many citizens, including non-Jews, women, gays and others.
But even if a full-fledged halachic state is not a realistic eventuality, Lubich does express concern about increasing efforts by both the haredi and hard-line National-Religious political parties to pass and implement laws increasing the role of religion in public life.
“I am very concerned that, to a certain extent, we will see a greater role for Jewish law and religion in public life,” said Lubich. “This is very dangerous. It will create a great deal of conflict, a lot of fear of religion, and will only do damage.”
Along with Smotrich’s comments this week was a separate story in which it emerged that the haredi United Torah Judaism Party demanded in its coalition agreement with the Likud the passage of a law that would allow gender separation in “the provision of public services, studies [and] events.”
In theory, gender-separate public services could include state-sanctioned separate seating on public transport, at health clinics and many other areas of public life.
UTJ also reportedly demanded in its coalition negotiations greater restrictions on the violation of Shabbat in the public domain, as efforts by haredi leaders and activists to halt commercial activity and construction works on the Sabbath have stepped up considerably in recent years.
In addition, legislation was advanced in the Knesset by the haredi parties to grant the state Rabbinical Courts equal status to the civil courts in matters of property law.
And there were even efforts during the course of the last government to stop Israel’s professional soccer league from staging games on Shabbat, notably by former minister Uri Ariel of the hard-line National-Religious party the National Union.
Lubich said he is “very worried” by these kind of developments, especially in light of the fact that such demands could be implemented merely through the political power of the religious parties and their leverage in coalition negotiations.
SIMILARLY, PROF. Yedidya Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute pointed to the heavy political clout of the haredi parties and the likelihood that it will grow even greater in the future, perhaps even the near future, with a commensurate impact on religious life in Israel.
He noted that the haredi parties in the most recent election obtained 16 seats, 13% of all Knesset seats, putting the sector’s political representation above its share of 12% of the total population.
Together with the five seats garnered by the hard-line National-Religious Union of Right-Wing Parties, whose leaders and supporting rabbis have adopted very stringent positions on matters of religion, the religious parties comprise over 17% of the Knesset.
And their power is heightened further when considering that the prospective government the prime minister was trying to assemble comprised just 65 MKs. In that scenario, the haredi and National-Religious parties would have constituted more than 32% of the governing coalition, giving it massive political heft.
Bearing in mind that turnout among the general population in the next elections in September is likely to be down due to voter apathy, and that voter turnout among the haredi parties will likely remain the same due to the religious obligation haredi rabbis put on voting, the religious bloc of parties could get event bigger.
Stern argued that Smotrich’s comments were likely more about utopian aspirations for the State of Israel, but noted that the hard-line National-Religious community and its rabbis, whom Smotrich represents, very much do want to implement the norms of Jewish law in Israeli state law.
Like Lubich, he noted previous efforts of National-Religious leaders to implement such ideas and said a return to this agenda is now possible, and he said that the role of religion in public life will likely increase due to demographic trends and the high birth rate in the haredi and National-Religious sectors.
But Stern said that increasing radicalization on religious issues among the haredi community is not a given, noting the changes that have taken place in haredi society in recent years, with increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox men and women studying in higher education, gaining employment and even joining the army.
These trends “are pushing haredim into being more open to society,” he said, and opined that “the more they go this way, the less they will want to separate themselves and accede to conservative ultra-Orthodox attitudes.”
He also noted that the direction taken by the masses of the haredi community also depends to some extent on how the state handles the issue of their integration into society.
Raising yeshiva subsidies and welfare benefits for the sector, as the last government did, will and did stop haredi men in particular from obtaining employment, a great moderating factor on the community.
Providing money for higher education in the haredi sector would have the opposite effect, as would, says Stern, allowing gender-separate higher education studies, since both policies would again push larger numbers of haredi men into the workforce.
He also warned of efforts to neuter the Supreme Court and strip it of its ability to strike down Knesset legislation, saying that the court may in the future be the only institution that stands in the way of laws that bring religious strictures into the public domain.
The haredi parties and the Union of Right-Wing Parties are both adamantly in favor of constraining the Supreme Court in this matter. The ultra-Orthodox in particular want to stop the court from striking down mass military service exemptions for yeshiva students, as it has done three times in the past.
Ironically, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman has both supported a law for the Knesset to override the High Court, while also championing the cause of reducing the influence of religion in public life, insisting he won’t let the haredi parties create a “halachic state.”
Indeed, the current political turmoil is due to Liberman having blocked the creation of a coalition after the April election over religion and state issues, notably IDF service.
Demographic and political trends do not look favorable at the moment for those looking to halt the increasing influence of religion and Jewish law in Israel public life, as has been witnessed in recent years with culture battles over these issues.
Although a “halachic state” or “Jewish republic” does not appear likely in the near future, it appears that efforts to halt the gradual encroachment of religion into Israeli daily life will become much more difficult in the coming years.