Israel is in a religious war between haredi, democratic forces - opinion

There are forces that want to dictate how everyone should live their lives under religious claims, while others are trying to create a society of equality and religious tolerance.

Members of UTJ hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem after the April 2019 election. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Members of UTJ hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem after the April 2019 election.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
One could be justified in thinking that the United Torah Judaism Party is run by antisemites. Look at the evidence.
On Tuesday night, UTJ released a video in response to Monday’s High Court ruling recognizing conversions performed by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, which would then allow for citizenship under the Law of Return.
The video begins with the words “bark mitzvah,” and flashes pictures of dogs wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin. A broadcaster announces that according to the High Court of Justice, these dogs are all Jewish.
Imagine for a moment that a party in Romania or Hungary put out such a campaign ad comparing Jews to dogs. Undoubtedly, we would hear from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within a day. The ADL would pump out press statements within the hour. And they’d be right. But did Netanyahu say anything since the ad went live? You already know the answer.
We can certainly argue the legitimacy of the court’s decision. I, for one, believe it was just and valid. The initial petition to the court was filed in 2005, and for the last 16 years the justices waited, hinting that this was an issue for the Knesset to solve through legislation. But our parliamentarians were afraid to do their job. They were scared of retribution from their haredi partners.
But a state of inequality cannot go on forever. The court had no choice but to intervene to rectify this undemocratic situation. And legitimately so, for that is its responsibility.
The response by the ultra-Orthodox world has been appalling, and uncovers a real problem that Israel faces today. Iran we will deal with. Hamas and Hezbollah too. Even the coronavirus will one day be behind us, or become a constant (dare I say regular) part of our lives with which we will learn to live.
But what is happening in Israel right now is akin to a religious war. There are forces that want to dictate how everyone should live their lives under religious claims, while others are trying to create a society where there is equality and religious tolerance.
The first year of this pandemic has illustrated time and again how parts of the haredi sector care only about themselves. The continued violations of restrictions – opening schools when they were supposed to be closed, conducting weddings, holding a rebbe’s tish and more – illustrated that many haredim believe they live an autonomous life, and can do whatever they want without accountability.
What they have been basically saying all along is that they don’t care if they spread the virus from one to the other, neither inside their communities nor outside. Their way of life, they seem to say, is more important than public health.
We are seeing it again now. To have the audacity to call female soldiers who go through conversion in the IDF shiksa – as one UTJ member of Knesset did this week – is to insult the 14,000 soldiers who have undergone conversion conducted by the IDF’s rabbis, and who have established homes in the State of Israel.
Unlike most of the UTJ MKs whose qualification to serve in Israel’s parliament was studying in yeshiva and getting to know the right rabbis, these converted men and women put their lives on the line to keep all of Israel safe – even the people who believe they are shiksas.
LET’S BE clear: the reason these MKs have responded this way is because they are scared. Terrified. They feel threatened by progressive Jews. Doubt, questions and liberal ideas make them uncomfortable.
So what do they do? They go on the attack. Everything is permitted in this war that is truthfully less about religion and more about power, politics and money.
The court’s decision on Monday might have been a blow to their monopoly on religious life in Israel, but the battle is far from over.
Without civil marriage in Israel, there are still hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot get married in this country; still Jews who cannot pray freely at the Western Wall; and still restaurants that cannot remain open on Shabbat and be kosher at the same time.
After March 23 there will be an opportunity to create a new balance in Israel, and restore normalcy to religious affairs. The first step to achieve that? Keeping haredi parties out of the next coalition.
In November 2015, Donald Trump – then one of a long list of Republican candidates – spoke at a rally in South Carolina and committed what voters would later agree was one of his greatest offenses: he mocked a disabled reporter.
Trump was defending his discredited claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11, and then appeared to impersonate reporter Serge Kovaleski, who wrote about the alleged incident and suffers from a congenital joint condition.
I was reminded of that story this week after listening to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s radio interview on Monday, when he was asked about the almost 6,000 Israelis who have died since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.
Netanyahu dismissed the question, flippantly replying: “Ask the Shashot and the pakot and the paka,” a reference to New Hope No. 2, Yifat Shasha-Biton, who headed the Knesset Coronavirus Committee last summer and was a steady opposition to the government’s decisions to close much of the country. “Paka paka, Shasha Shasha” Netanyahu continued, a phrase that could be loosely translated as “all talk, no action Shasha.”
Empathy for the dead? Forget about it. Sympathy for the bereaved? Don’t bother. For Netanyahu, this is all just “paka paka.” 
It was a sad moment, showing a disconnect from the Israeli electorate, what is happening in the country, the way the coronavirus has ravaged families and communities.
I thought of my eldest daughter who might have listened to Netanyahu’s interview. What would she think of Trump in 2015 or Netanyahu in 2021? What would she and her friends learn from these politicians? From this way of behaving and this way of talking? 
 Netanyahu made light of human suffering for political gain. It was disgraceful, but also sad because while you could – if you wanted to, of course – excuse Netanyahu for a slip of the tongue, it did lay bare one of the fundamental problems with the political discourse in Israel today: it is barren, void of any substance, a disgrace, an utter embarrassment.
This nation is now going to its fourth election in two years, but we still don’t really know what the parties stand for, and what really separates them in terms of policy. Yes, we know who claims they will sit with Bibi and who claims they won’t, but that has nothing to do with policy – nor reality. It is simply identity politics in its basest form.
INSTEAD OF policy, all we hear from our prime minister is how he brought vaccines, how he will bring vaccines, how he is the only person who can ever obtain vaccines. Yair Lapid is a lefty, Naftali Bennett is a traitor, and Gideon Sa’ar? He’s just weak.
This is negativity on steroids, and it deeply harms the country.
The other side is only slightly better. The party leaders slam Netanyahu, with most of them spending all day repeating how they won’t sit with him (Benny Gantz made that promise through three elections, and we know how that ended).
At least they present some policy: Bennett has written a book on how to manage the coronavirus crisis, including a plan on how to model Israel’s economy after Singapore’s; Lapid has presented plans on climate change, housing and care for the elderly; and Sa’ar has presented an extensive education plan.
Netanyahu? Lots of talk about bringing vaccines, signing more peace deals, and stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But no policy debate, no response to the plans his opponents have issued.
They criticize his poor management of the coronavirus – pretty much a national consensus – but all he talks about is how he is the only one who can keep doing what he has been doing. Stability has become a catchphrase for his election campaign, basically sending a message that if you vote Likud you get more of his purported success. No vision. Just more of the same.
An example of this is evident on the Likud website. It is so outdated that the main photo is one of Netanyahu standing with embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is now under investigation for misreporting COVID deaths and for accusations of sexual harassment.
If the Likud can’t even bother to update the homepage of its official party website, can we really expect to see a policy platform laid out?
On the other hand, do platforms even mean anything anymore? Ahead of the April 2019 election, the newly formed Blue and White amalgamation set up a special policy team to draft a platform. It spent countless hours refining each word and agenda item, and even mailed it to private homes.
Did anyone then vote for the Gantz-Lapid duo because of what it said in their booklet? Did people really bother to read it?
This is an unfortunate and sad state of affairs. Israel’s challenges are tremendous. From Iran to the ICC to the management of the continued health and economic crises, the people need to know what their elected officials stand for, what they believe in.
There has to be more to Israel than just yes, Bibi/no, Bibi.