Last Saturday night, we received a response to what would seem to be a marginal, essentially administrative and not all that interesting question: Will the Knesset members of the Degel Hatorah party serve as ministers with full membership in the government or will they continue masquerading as deputy ministers with the status of ministers?
After weighing the matter, the leader of Degel Hatorah, rabbi Gershon Edelstein, concluded that the ideological principle of not accepting the position of ministers must be maintained. The party’s Knesset members will not serve as ministers but will continue the decades-old practice (followed until 2015) of serving as de facto but not de jure ministers.
The argument in favor of this bizarre arrangement is the historic compromise worked out between the ultra-Orthodox ideologues and their consciences – a compromise between the ideological and the pragmatic. The official ultra-Orthodox line is that it is forbidden to take part in the secular Zionists’ regime and serve in a government that does not observe Torah law.
Why does Degel HaTorah partake in Israeli politics?
The okay to organize as political parties and contest Knesset elections is grounded in the argument that this is a matter of self-defense, to prevent the passage of laws that would undermine the ultra-Orthodox community and the religious character of the state. Accordingly, ultra-Orthodox participation in the government must be kept to a bare minimum.
They need only “be on guard to ensure that no laws be passed, Heaven forbid, that would lead the Jewish people astray,” as the late Rabbi Steinman wrote in a letter on the eve of the elections in 1996. On the other hand, it is clear that ministerial positions provide extensive power that can be exploited to ensure ultra-Orthodox interests to the maximum. This led to the fake solution: to proceed with and declare that one is proceeding without.
WE SHOULD note that the political arena is the last in which this strange dance has survived. In recent years, ultra-Orthodox politicians have discarded the ideological cloak and snatched up the fat jobs that are available in the repugnant Zionist institutions. Yanki Deri, the son of the chair of Shas, has been appointed to the Jewish Agency Executive; MK Gafni’s son is an adviser to the deputy chair of the Jewish National Fund, Shmuel Litov, who himself belongs to the United Torah Judaism bloc. But, as noted, despite this gluttony for jobs, Edelstein has ruled that when it comes to the government, the facade will be maintained.
This decision may turn out to be the first political hot potato tossed to the High Court of Justice with regard to the new government. As may be remembered, in the wake of a petition filed by Yesh Atid against Ya’acov Litzman’s position as a deputy minister with the powers of a minister, in 2015 the court ruled that this fiction was unconstitutional and that Litzman must decide whether to resign his post or to serve as a full-fledged minister. In that instance, Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages permitted him to serve as health minister.
However, the problem here is not merely constitutional. In a way, it is at the essence of the deep tension between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel. The latter may be willing to accept full segregation. In the case in which a group chooses to cut itself off from the political system – not to be affected by the majority’s decisions, but also not to influence them; not to take anything from the system and not to pay anything into it – the deal could be viewed, albeit with no great joy, as equitable.
The Amish in the United States are a good example of such an arrangement. However, what is totally unthinkable is for a group to wield power and authority on the one hand, while refusing to bear the responsibility that comes with them on the other.
This fictional arrangement may well be the clearest manifestation of the problem. If the ultra-Orthodox assume a role in the power structure, they must also internalize the fact that you cannot influence Israeli society and enjoy the delights of power without bearing the burden of responsibility for the state and its future. Anyone who takes part in the government must fully and explicitly embrace the responsibility that comes with it.
This arrangement must be rejected, not only because of the High Court ruling against it but mainly because of its warped internal logic and its far-reaching implications.
The writer is a research assistant in the Program on Ultra-Orthodox Society of the Center for a Shared Society at the Israel Democracy Institute and a doctoral student in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.