Despite recent election setback, religious parties still wield power in Israel

Henry Mitchell
September 26, 2019

On July 19, 2018, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, narrowly passed a controversial law known as the Nation State Bill, after a lengthy and caustic debate. Arab Israeli legislators responded by ripping up copies of the bill and were promptly removed from the chamber.

The bill makes several changes which are strongly objected to by both liberal Israelis and Israel’s non-Jewish community. These include downgrading the Arabic language to an undefined “special status”, and proclaiming that Jewish settlement is a national value.

The bill was met with immediate condemnation by many international Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress, who worried that the status of Israel as a liberal democracy was in question. At the same time, it was met with support by many Israeli Jews, with a poll finding that 58% agreed with the legislation.

The law was the latest step in a long series that moves Israel along a crucial line: from its origins as a liberal democracy based on secular values characteristic of Western states, toward a nation organized as a religious society. It is a line that travels from the pluralism and religious tolerance of the Enlightenment, including ideals such as separation of church and state, toward a unity of religion and government, where other religions have less and less space.

Two religious groups, Orthodox religious Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox, are extremely influential in Israeli politics and society, and the passing of the Nation State Bill was just one example of their growing power. Religious Zionists, vehemently nationalist, used the bill to increasingly establish support for Judaism as the state religion of Israel.

Ultra-Orthodox groups, similarly, urged that a clause in the bill be changed from, “The state will work to preserve the affinity between [Israel] and the Jewish people everywhere,” to “The state will work in the Diaspora to preserve the affinity between [Israel] and the Jewish people.” This was an attempt to specify that the state only supported unity between Jews outside its borders, and that within Israel the only recognized form of Judaism was theirs.

Although they do not constitute the majority of Israeli citizens, the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel often hold significant power over the government, and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls several important aspects of Israeli life, such as marriage and the licensing of Kosher products.

In addition, the Rabbinate has shown signs of attempting to expand its reach beyond what had been common practice. For example, Conservative rabbi Dov Haiyun was woken up at his house by police officers early in the morning of July 19 2018, and detained for questioning due to officiating a wedding outside the auspices of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This was the first time the law had been enforced, and it sparks many to question the validity of such religious influence on a nominally secular country such as Israel.

Ultimately, the current extent of religious leverage over the Israeli government is harmful to Israel’s status as a modern nation and only serves to further widen the rift between religious Jews, and Israel’s secular and religious minority communities. It must be addressed if Israel’s status as an open and free democracy is to remain.

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, and from the beginning religion played a significant role in defining the national identity. Israel was to be a “Jewish and democratic state,” both a homeland for all Jewish people and a secular nation that did not discriminate based on religion. However, from the beginning, religious leaders began to exert their influence over the laws of Israel.

Founding father of Israel David Ben-Gurion reached an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudat Israel to give religious leaders purview over several key areas of Israeli society. These included an official recognition that a day of rest would occur on shabbat, that all Jewish marriages would be performed according to Orthodox customs, and that Orthodox leaders would have authority for certifying all kosher products in the country. This agreement became known as the status quo, a term which has come to reference the delicate balance between the secular and religious in Israel.

In the years since Israel’s founding, the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews on Israeli politics has only continued to grow. Initially, most were opposed to the State of Israel, as it would be secular and not governed according to halakhic law. However, most have gradually come to at least accept the existence of Israel and have begun to vote in elections in greater numbers.

For the first several decades of Israel’s existence, Haredi interests were represented by two relatively small political parties: Agudat Yisrael for Hasidim, and Degel HaTorah for non-Hasidic Haredim. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Haredi political power was consolidated into two main political parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Shas was founded in 1984 by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef in response to the lack of Sephardi representation in the Ashkenazi-dominated ultra-Orthodox parties.

At the same time, in 1992, the two dominant Ashkenazi Haredi parties, Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, combined to form the United Torah Judaism party. Both Shas and UTJ support the establishment of a theocratic state governed by halakhic law. They generally follow the advice of rabbis for policy decisions, and Hasidic politicians are particularly beholden to the demands of their Rebbes.

For example, in 2013, United Torah Judaism MK (Member of Knesset) Yaakov Litzman resigned from his position as Health Minister over the government’s approval of railway maintenance work on the Sabbath, a seemingly unrelated issue. When asked about his decision, Litzman replied that he had no choice. “According to [him], he received a direct order by the young head Rabbi of Ger to resign from any government that allows work on the Sabbath.”

This consolidation of ultra-Orthodox political power has allowed both Shas and United Torah Judaism to gain a significant enough number of seats to become major players in government, and both often are members of the ruling coalition, be it center-left or right-wing.

Aside from the Haredim, the main religious group that is influential in Israeli politics is the religious Zionist movement. They are predominantly modern Orthodox and often embrace more aspects of secular society than do Haredim; in addition, in contrast to many ultra-Orthodox, they are mostly vehemently Zionist.

Following the teachings of the late Rabbi Abraham Kook, religious Zionism holds that the Israelites were promised the Holy Land by God and thus it is their right to establish a state there. However, they, like most ultra-Orthodox, are opposed to the secular Zionist movement and seek to bring religion to a more prominent role in Israeli society.

The religious Zionist movement was represented for most of Israel’s existence by the National Religious Party, which was founded in 1956 as a merger of two smaller religious Zionist political organizations.

It began as a party focused primarily on religious issues, often similar to those promoted by ultra-Orthodox parties, such as the enforcement of the Sabbath, and prohibition of selling non-Kosher products. However, on most secular political issues the party was centrist, and often participated in both left- and right-leaning governments. This began to change during the 1970s as a new generation of NRP leaders moved the party farther to the right.

By the early 2000s, the party was staunchly right-wing, and supported Jewish settler interests and an antagonistic stance against Palestine. However, it faded in the 2006 elections, winning only three seats, and voted to dissolve itself two years later.

In Israel’s most recent election, the national religious faction was represented by Yamina, a list lead by another important religious Zionist party, The Jewish Home, and headed by the charismatic young politician Ayalet Shaked. The party, while still maintaining its Orthodox roots, has attempted to appeal to a broader range of Israelis who hold right-wing and nationalist views.

Just as Israel’s political parties have shifted over time, so has its population. In 1990, Israel’s Haredim constituted only 5% of the total population. They now make up over 12% and are growing rapidly. With birth rates three times the average for Israelis, they will continue to play a larger and larger role in politics as their population increases. As a result, ultra-Orthodox political parties will gain increasing influence and be able to more strongly assert their religious agenda.

While the birth rates of religious Zionists and other modern Orthodox groups are not nearly as significant as those of Haredim, parties such as Yamina have seen their numbers bolstered in recent years due to the arrival of over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are more likely to support right-wing groups.

However, at the same time as the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist communities have increased their numbers, Israel’s non-religious population has grown as well, due to many formerly religious citizens turning secular. This potentially sets Israel up for a future demographic clash, as secular Israelis become more infuriated at perceived religious abuses of power, and vice versa.

Undoubtedly, Israel’s religious right, both ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist, has increased its influence in recent years. Israel is a unicameral parliamentary democracy, meaning its legislature has only one chamber, the Knesset.

Israel’s voting system uses the D’Hondt method of party-list proportional representation; each party nominates a list of candidates and are allotted a number of seats based on their share of votes. In elections, Israel is combined as a single constituency, meaning all citizens vote for the same parties and candidates.

This tends to give smaller parties a disproportionate influence relative to their size: larger parties rarely gain enough seats to form a majority government, and thus must make concessions to smaller parties to gain their support in a coalition.

Despite being minority parties, ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism, and religious Zionist parties like Yamina or its predecessor The Jewish Home are often the kingmakers in coalition governments and are able to often get their way with many religious issues.

In the previous 20th Knesset, elected in 2015, all three of those parties were members of the ruling right-wing coalition with Likud, despite only having a total of only 21 of the 120 seats in the legislature between them. While at odds on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, the three religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties often find common ground on their beliefs regarding laws on religious observance, and often join together to pressure the government into taking a harder-line stance.

In July of 2018, for example, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox rabbis met for a conference to jointly oppose legislation that would remove the Orthodox monopoly on conversions in Israel.

One need look no further than several recent pieces of legislation to note the extreme power of ultra-Orthodox parties to impose their will over the majority-secular Israel. In January of 2018, the Knesset, by a vote of 58-57, narrowly passed a bill that banned most stores of operating on the Sabbath.

The ‘supermarkets bill,’ as it is known, was heavily promoted by ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas, who stated that they would resign from the government if the motion failed. Likud, though a secular party, voted for the motion, with Prime Minister Netanyahu telling his party that “There are commitments by the coalition and they must be upheld to continue maintaining the government.”

Various other acts by the current coalition have demonstrated the influence of religious parties on Israeli society. In July of 2017, PM Netanyahu reneged on a promised agreement three years in the making that would have allowed men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.

The deal was hailed as a victory by many in the Jewish diaspora, as well as liberals in Israel; ultimately, however, the ultra-Orthodox lobby won out, and Netanyahu backed down under intense pressure. Despite the decision severely damaging Israel’s relations with many international Jewish organizations, Netanyahu was too beholden to his coalition partners to risk angering them.

Another example, currently under consideration, is Likud’s attempt to delay the passage of a bill which would set minimum conscription quotas for yeshivas. Both ultra-Orthodox parties have stated they will leave the government if the bill is passed, and PM Netanyahu has appealed the Israeli High Court to postpone the vote in order to preserve his coalition and his job.

All of these religious bills passed by the government fly directly in the face of the opinion of the majority of Israeli citizens. While religious parties continue to push for a more stringent observance of the Sabbath, polls consistently show that a wide majority of Israelis support permitting more activities on the Sabbath, not less.

A study by Pew Research showed that 63% of Israelis oppose banning public transportation on the Sabbath, while only 35% support it. Among secular Israelis, by far the largest subset of the country’s population, 94% oppose it and only 6% support it. Another area in which the religious and secular communities are divided is the subject of drafting Haredim into the military.

According to the same Pew study, 72% of Israeli Jews support mandatory service, while only 23% oppose; the number increases even further when limited to secular Jews. Ultra-Orthodox are often able to obtain a blanket exemption from mandatory military service to study at yeshiva, which can put them at odds with the majority of Israeli society who see this as shirking a civic duty. However, until now they have been able to maintain these exemptions, and, in fact, state funding of yeshivas has reached a record high under the current government.

While Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties currently have a tight stranglehold on Israeli politics, Israel’s most recent election, held on September 17, might see them relinquish it. The religious parties actually performed well: UTJ held steady at 8 seats, and both Shas and Yamina gained a seat each, bringing their totals to 9 and 7 seats respectively.

However, their erstwhile coalition partner Netanyahu and his Likud party lost seats, and at the moment appears unable to form a coalition. Their main opponent, the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz has expressed a desire for a secular government that would exclude the religious parties. After doing their best for years to turn Israel into a theocracy, it appears that the majority of Israelis have decided to exclude them from government–for now.

While September’s election may have been at least a slight victory for those who wish to see Israel become a secular democracy, it is important to advise caution. As the ultra-Orthodox and national religious grow in numbers and solidify their power base, they will continue to press their religious agenda on Israel’s society. It is important to remember that this runs contrary to the opinions of the majority of Israeli citizens, who are generally supportive of advancing secular causes in Israel. In addition to going against Israelis’ wishes, the religious parties’ agendas also often run counter to basic democratic principles.

Specific examples include supporting the segregation by gender of bus lines that run in Haredi neighborhoods. More broadly, however, these parties’ agendas violate the liberal democratic principle of separation of church and state.

If Israel wants to continue to be recognized as such by the global community, it must continue to reject the influence of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties on its secular agenda. It is time for Israeli politicians to put their country’s values ahead of their political careers and stop acceding to their demands once and for all.

Henry Mitchell

Henry (’22) is a Senior Policy Editor. He is a political science major and history correlate, with interests in politics, economics and international affairs. He has interned for members of United States House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania General Assembly is a member of the varsity squash team at Vassar.