Will ultra-Orthodoxy end Israel's political chaos?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: This is a chance for ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians to do something not merely for their constituencies, but for the sake of the Jewish state.

 AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man looks at a Blue and White party election campaign banner in Bnei Brak depicting Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 2021 election. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man looks at a Blue and White party election campaign banner in Bnei Brak depicting Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 2021 election.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

It happened haphazardly.

With his boss gone to national politics, deputy mayor Uri Lupolianski – a bearded and black-hatted father of 12 – was suddenly mayor of Jerusalem.

Four months later, the temporary became permanent, as the acting mayor was elected and thus handed ultra-Orthodoxy an unprecedented chance to shape a major part of Israeli life. The opportunity was squandered, as was a second opportunity the following decade.

Now, with the merger between Blue and White and New Hope, a third opportunity looms – a chance for ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians to do something not merely for their constituencies, but for the sake of the Jewish state. 

The first opportunity

THE FIRST opportunity began as a fairytale and ended as a tragedy.

Lupoliansky, who earned national respect as the founder of the Yad Sarah charity, which lends medical equipment free of charge to thousands of patients regardless of background, was expected to build bridges between ultra-Orthodoxy and everyone else.

Uri Lupolianski (credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)Uri Lupolianski (credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)

That never happened. The capital’s ultra-Orthodox mayor displayed limited motivation to build schools, playgrounds, and theaters in secular neighborhoods. His ultimate conviction for bribery proved not only disillusioning, but also proverbial, because rather than be driven by greed it was driven by sectarianism, as the bribes he took went not to his pockets, but to his charity and various ultra-Orthodox institutions. 

Had he thought nationally, or even just of ultra-Orthodoxy’s broader interests, the mayor and the rest of ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians would have used that opportunity to impress the rest of Israel by showing that they, too, can produce a city builder like Teddy Kollek.

The second opportunity

That was in the century’s first decade. In the following decade, ultra-Orthodoxy got a second opportunity to do something bigger than its ordinary politics, when the pandemic broke out, and the health minister tasked with confronting it was United Torah Judaism leader Ya’acov Litzman.

The hassidic politician who had earned respect for having expanded health spending and also forced producers to stamp health-hazard warnings on excessively fat and sweet food products, was now tasked with leading the country out of a major crisis. Never before did such a thing happen to an ultra-Orthodox politician. The opportunity was big, and the failure was even bigger.

Litzman proved unable to effectively address the broad public, and unequipped to lead the experts who were fighting the plague. In addition, he paid much attention to his sectarian concerns – like easing lockdowns on synagogues – at the expense of what should have been his only concern, the plague itself.

Secular politicians, most notably Benjamin Netanyahu, were thus sucked into the vacuum and led the governmental struggle. In spring 2020, hardly two months since the first lockdown, Litzman left the agency he had headed for a decade, just when it was needed most.

Whether Litzman’s departure was his choice or Netanyahu’s remains unclear. What’s clear is that ultra-Orthodoxy again missed an opportunity to assume leadership that would transcend its narrow agenda and tall walls.

Next fall, ultra-Orthodoxy will get one more such chance to assume national leadership.

The third opportunity

THE JOINT ticket unveiled this week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar is not going to overwhelm the system. Polls quickly indicated what anyone talking to voters could guess without the pollsters: the merger creates no new traffic between Right and Left.

However, the merger delivers a sizable party that has no bad blood with ultra-Orthodoxy, or much of an agenda concerning religious affairs. That is unlike Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, not to mention Meretz, all of which are disqualified by ultra-Orthodox rabbis as militantly anti-religious. 

This position will become pivotal if Netanyahu fails to win 61 lawmakers. In such a case, ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians will decide whether to help Netanyahu impose yet another irregular election, or put an end to the madness by creating a broad coalition with those who refuse to serve under a prime minister who faces trial and undermines the judiciary.

This does not have to be done rudely. It can be done by a rotation deal whereby Gantz, despite Yair Lapid’s presumably larger following, will be prime minister for the first two years, during which Netanyahu’s trial will likely end. Then, if acquitted, Netanyahu would rotate to the premiership, and if he is convicted Likud will install someone else as prime minister.

This is the simpler scenario, whereby Netanyahu fails to assemble 61 seats. What if he squeezes past 60? Will ultra-Orthodox politicians then have the honesty to concede that Israel deserves better than a narrow government that will further destabilize the political system and tear Israeli society asunder?

This is the task ultra-Orthodox leaders will face on November 2. 

NEVER THROUGHOUT its 74 years has Israel been challenged by anything like the past three years’ political impasse. In terms of the concern it evokes for Israel’s future, it brings to mind the days of awe that preceded the Six Day War, when Israel faced three neighbors’ sudden military siege.

Back then, the political part of the crisis was reinvented by modern Orthodoxy’s politicians.

Headed by interior minister Moshe Haim Shapira, the National Religious Party forced Labor’s Levi Eshkol to create a broad government that included the opposition’s Moshe Dayan as defense minister and, for the first time ever, Menachem Begin and his party Herut.

The move inspired the people and fueled the military victory that saved Israel from annihilation. It also transformed modern Orthodoxy’s political status, from supporting actor to main actor; a prudent and patriotic political player that showed it cared for the state no less than for its voters, maybe more.

Now, if its leaders display the kind of leadership modern Orthodoxy displayed in 1967, ultra-Orthodoxy can emerge as the improbable savior that salvaged the Zionist enterprise by bringing a three-year constitutional drama, judicial tragedy, political farce and royal opera to its long-overdue end.


The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.