Israel's 'religious' Jewish parties want to destroy democracy, morality - opinion

Religious and secular Jews need to work together to take back Judaism from the present institutional leadership’s destructive grasp.

 FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, and Shas party head MK Arye Deri attend a meeting in the Knesset in May on the state budget.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, and Shas party head MK Arye Deri attend a meeting in the Knesset in May on the state budget.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In the struggle over judicial overhaul , the religious parties have led the attack on democracy. Currently, where religious parties control government institutions, unjust and discriminatory policies are being pursued. 

To assure a democratic state of Israel it will not be enough to stop the anti judiciary legislation.

We must restore the Jewish tradition so that religious political parties live within the ground rules of democracy, human dignity, and equality. Religious and secular Jews need to work together to take back Judaism from the present institutional leadership’s destructive grasp.

The religious parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism, now joined by the Religious Zionist Party – are anti-democratic in their principles. They claim that the word of God (as they interpret it) is superior to the (democratic) laws of the land. They are also undemocratic in their policies. They get special privileges and funding for their causes, but want to deny equal treatment, or enforce discriminatory behavior, toward other groups and minorities.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews consider themselves superior

Take the goal of stripping the authority of the Supreme Court and ending the independence of the judiciary. The antagonism to the High Court of Justice among Haredim is driven by the court’s rulings that full exemption of haredi men from the military draft violates the fundamental democratic principle of equality.

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)

With the growth of their political power, the haredi parties moved from seeking an exemption within the present institutional and legislative framework to destroying the judiciary, as it blocks their policy goals. Since democracy means little to them, they never imagined the intensity of the protests to uphold it. 

When they grasped that they had stirred up a hornet’s nest, they realized that the backlash threatened to roll back their political gains of recent decades, as well as make them radioactive for any future non-Likud coalitions. 

Therefore, in public, they have backed down on the judicial overhaul. They call for any future legislation to be only advanced by a consensus agreement. However, they still insist on a sweeping exemption of Haredim from the draft – whatever it takes. This means that they will push for some override legislation, or for crippling the High Court, if that is what it will take. 

In an earlier generation, modern Orthodoxy taught that being religious meant being committed to a higher standard of morality. This did not mean special exemptions but greater responsibility for fellow human beings. 

The haredi parties have reversed these standards. Under cover of upholding the value of Torah learning, they insist that it is right that other Israelis give two to nine years of their life for IDF service to defend Israel, while they are excused.

They exploit the tradition’s reverence for learning to advocate a policy that others fight and die for Israel (and for them) while they sit home safely, their lives uninterrupted. They consider themselves – and not those who give their lives to protect the Jewish people – the superior (God fearing) servants of Hashem. 

Religious Zionist Party betrays Israel's history and public

No less shocking is that the Religious Zionist Party is set to betray the “covenant of blood” between religious and secular Jews. In the Zionist movement, religious and secular worked and suffered and died together to build the state. They served together in the army to protect all the inhabitants  Now the Religious Zionist Party supports the total exemption of haredim from sharing the burden of security among secular and religious Israelis alike.

After independence was won, both groups joined to offer a haven and protection to every persecuted Jew in the world. Now religious parties are jointly preparing a law to curtail the Law of Return and withdraw the promise of haven from descendants of Jews who are not halachically Jewish. They violate the lesson of the Holocaust that these people share the fate of the Jewish people and should be protected.

The Religious Zionist Party’s response to the ongoing settler rampages against Palestinian villages in the West Bank is a warped application of religious values. Those outbursts were expressions of rage and revenge for the murder of four Jews near Eli. 

Instead of explaining that Jewish ethics in Pirkei Avot 4:1 teach: “Who is a hero? One who controls his anger [and the urge to strike back],” Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionist Party) defended the law-breaking attacks on Palestinians by equating them to the anti-judicial reform protests in Israel.

According to his “religious” lens, shooting at villagers, smashing cars, burning houses of innocent Arabs is just as legitimate as nonviolent protests against undermining the judiciary, in which some participants ended up blocking highways. 

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, called to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara (although he later apologized for the way that he had expressed it). 

When the heads of the IDF, the Shabak (Israeli Security Service) and Israel Police condemned the outbursts as “nationalist terror,” Smotrich insisted that the term “terror” cannot be applied to the behavior of Jewish settlers. 

Minister Orit Struck (Religious Zionist Party) attacked the Shabak for acting like the (despised, mercenary) Wagner group in that only were they wrong to condemn the violence – in so doing they were acting against the government.

Thus anti-democratic religious norms are being used as a battering ram to demolish the wall of morality, of minimizing civilian casualties, and of ethical restraint that the IDF has erected over the 75 years of Israel’s existence.

Recently the rabbinic head of a religious pre-army course defined the life sentence of Amiran Ben Uliel – whose murderous act of arson caused the death of three members of a Palestinian family – an “injustice” and called for his release. This is a Torah of injustice, of upholding immoral behavior, of denouncing those who exercise conscience. 

The haredi parties exploit the democratic process of coalition building to have the government give them special financial support and monopolistic control over religious services, as well as underwrite a separate educational system. 

Simultaneously they seek to destroy the main protector of human rights in Israel, the Supreme Court, for daring to limit this process by upholding equal treatment for minorities and granting some recognition of pluralistic religious options.

The Religious Zionist Party’s demands for preferential treatment and funds focus mostly on the settlements. Their animus at the Supreme Court flows from its checking excesses and protecting Palestinian legal rights as well as minority rights inside Israel. When he sought to deny funds slated for Arab communities and east Jerusalem, Bezalel Smotrich pushed for discrimination and unequal treatment inside Israel.

Harnessing Torah and Halacha to corruption

Elsewhere, the Torah and Halacha have been harnessed to a corrupt  rabbinic system. No women are allowed to serve as judges in the rabbinic courts. Furthermore,women are  treated unequally. Thousands of women are extorted by husbands who deny them a get (a halachic divorce) and ruin their lives by anchoring them to a failed marriage. By failing to find alternative halachic solutions to end these marriages, the rabbinate collaborates with the extortionists.

All women who get divorced in rabbinic courts are under tacit pressure to take less support or make custody concessions. They know that the husband can withhold a get at any time. Yet Shas is now pushing a law to force women to make their financial settlements through the rabbinic courts. This law would override a Supreme Court decision in 2019 which allowed most divorcing women to turn to civil courts to handle the financial settlement. 

Instead of correcting the abuses, Shas is pushing a law to reduce or eliminate judicial review of the rabbinate and rabbinic courts. 

In the National Religious community there is a silent but significant exploration of how to treat religious LGBTQs with compassion and bring them home. Others seek to find some halachic pathway for these behaviors. Both approaches treat LGBTQs with love and respect for their status as human beings in the image of God. 

Yet the coalition gives power and funding to Avi Maoz who denies the LGBTQ right to exist and seeks to legitimize “conversion therapy” (to change sexual orientation). This treatment has long been repudiated as futile and as medical malpractice by the leading medical and psychological organizations worldwide, and constitutes cruel and abusive treatment. Again, instead of seeking a way to treat LGBTQs with compassion, Smotrich proclaims himself a “proud homophobe.” 

In the name of Judaism, yeshiva students abuse Christians, spit at clergy, vandalize churches. These abusers are individuals, not political leaders or heads of institutions. Their teachers have failed to teach them otherwise or to condemn their harassment of Christians. 

In a new law pushed by Shas, the power to appoint rabbis of cities and neighborhoods is to be handed over to the Chief Rabbinate while the say of local authorities and communities in choosing rabbis is to be diminished. This is a blank check to appoint an uncontrolled number of non-responsive, non-community minded rabbis.

Religious and secular Jews together have to stop the channeling of Judaism as an antidemocratic force. The first step is to challenge the coalition parties and leadership’s religious credentials as constituting a warped understanding of Torah. 

Secular and religious must work to take away the power that these false traditionalists have gained, by law and custom, to act unjustly toward other people. 

We will need to revise the establishment of Judaism in Israel into a more pluralistic framework. 

All Israelis must support and push forward the progressive Zionist Orthodox model of a Torah that is humane, rigorously ethical, committed to democracy and equal responsibility to fight (and risk one’s life) for the sake of the whole Jewish people. How we can do this effectively will be the subject of my next column on this issue. 

The author is an oleh. He was a leader in American modern Orthodoxy and an activist for pluralism and a more Jewish communal agenda.