Whole Society Pluralism

In Israel, when hawks suffer, doves usually gain. But that’s not what happened last month, when voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament. The right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did almost lose his premiership, as his Likud-Beiteinu Party shed 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Israelis did vote en masse for the center-left. They did not, however, embrace the peace camp. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ran on a promise of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, and her party, Hatnua, performed abysmally, winning only six seats. When I was in Israel in January, people expressed fatigue with the moribund process. “There is no partner for peace,” they lamented. “We can’t trust the Palestinians.”(Interestingly enough, when a friend visited Palestine, he heard much the same thing). Yet, there was a message in the results, albeit one that has not been heard in a while: Israelis want to pare back the prerogatives that ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, enjoy.

Israel was first envisioned as a secular state—Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, was an atheist who viewed Jewishness as a national identity. Yet, Mount Herzl, the cemetery where he and other fathers and mothers of the nation are buried, is governed by the dictates of the Haredim. That is because in 1948, when the state was declared, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, secured the support of the very religious by allowing them to mold the country’s Jewish life.

Under the compromise struck between secular and religious elements, the Haredim were given dominion over marriage and divorce policy, funerals, conversions, and kosher certifications, all of which conform to Orthodox standards. The state apparatus and public services were also accommodated to certain aspects of Jewish law, such as strict Shabbos observance. Lastly, the ultra-Orthodox were granted communal autonomy. A separate, state-funded Haredi school system teaching almost exclusively Torah was established. Legislation was passed exempting yeshiva students from the compulsory military service that other Jewish Israelis perform.

There has been a human cost to such concessions. According to the Haredim, Judaism is transmitted matrilineally, a standard that other movements have relaxed to include those who trace their Jewish ancestry only patrilineally. The Law of Return, which dictates who can claim Israeli citizenship, allows people who have only one Jewish grandparent to immigrate. However, the Haredi definition is used when it comes to rites like marriage, leaving 300,000 Israelis who identify as Jewish but who do not meet the Haredi standard of Jewishness in a state of legal and religious limbo.

More ominously, the Haredim’s special privileges have morphed into an existential threat as their population has exploded. Some ultra-Orthodox have taken communal autonomy as an excuse to impose their lifestyle on others, using violence and intimidation to enforce modesty codes and gender segregation. The government has condemned these abuses, but it is fundamentally hypocritical to denounce attacks on pluralism in the civil sphere while tolerating a Haredi monopoly in the religious one—a schizoid policy that enables and encourages bad behavior. At present, 51 percent of Israeli schoolchildren are Haredi or Arab, belonging to groups that do not serve in the military, depriving the institution of what it most needs: bodies. Finally, many Haredim do not work, relying on state subsidies and going to schools with woefully spare secular curricula, which does not bode well for an economic juggernaut.

On January 22, the Israeli electorate offered up its own deliverance. The contest’s surprise second-place finisher with 19 mandates was journalist-cum-politician Yair Lapid, the leader of the new Yesh Atid Party. He ran as a centrist, pledging to tackle quality-of-life and corruption issues, in addition to a larger commitment of sharing societal burdens more equally. To Lapid, whose father spent decades fighting against the influence of religious parties, burden-sharing means an overhaul of the welfare system and a requirement that religious youths serve in the military. Crucially, Lapid is a supporter of whole society pluralism, advocating the implementation of civil marriage, a rewrite of Haredi lesson plans, and official recognition of the worship and practices of more liberal strains of Judaism.

Center-left parties, such as Hatnua and Labor would back such an agenda, and Likud Beiteinu, a largely secular bloc, would probably do so as well, as long it were not beholden to religious parties for a majority in the Knesset. Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of Labor, has said that her group will not sit in the government. She should rethink her position and join a grand coalition of secularists. It’s not an ideal fit. The alliance would have to put off peace to a later date. But that’s fine. Stopping fanatics within is a prerequisite for dealing with stone-throwers without.

Daniel J. Solomon ‘16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

Tags