Understanding Israel: The 2015 Election Part Three: Religious Parties

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One of the principal “fault lines” in Israeli politics is whether Israel should be a Jewish state or a state of the Jews.  “Jewish state” connotes a state guided by Jewish law and tradition; “State of the Jews” a “non-sectarian” state for the Jewish people, whether religious or secular.  The political ramifications are profound.  Who should control marriage, divorce, and burial, and to what extent should state law reflect Halachah, Jewish law?  Should the national airline, El Al, fly and municipal buses run on Shabbat and Holidays?  To what extent, if at all, should there be “separation of ‘church’ and state?”  

Last week, we looked at Arab political parties.  This week, at Jewish religious political parties.  Members of these parties agree on this principle: only adherence to Jewish law and tradition has kept the Jewish people alive for thousands of years – and only it can preserve the Jewish people, as Jews, in the future (as well as enable them to fulfill the Divine purpose and directive of living as Jews in Israel).  Accordingly, the religious parties favor safeguarding and strengthening the place of Jewish law and tradition in government, law, politics, and society.

While they agree on this, they differ on many other points.  Just for example:

•    To what extent, if at all, should observant Jews be obliged to serve in the military?  
•    How much, if any, political autonomy should the Palestinians enjoy?  (And if should have any, should it be a sovereign state?)   
•    Is defense of the settlements worth risking the lives of soldiers and settlers? 
•    To what extent should Torah scholars and their families receive government stipends?  
•    To what extent, if at all, should religious schools be obliged to teach “core curriculum” (i.e., secular) topics?   
•    To what extent should observant Jews engage with non-observant Jews and integrate with secular society?  
•    Can the religious parties even sit as part of a government coalition with non-religious parties?  

Just these few examples illustrate that it would be a great oversimplification to lump all Jewish “religious” parties together politically. 

The current (outgoing) Knesset was remarkable for the fact that neither of the Haredi “Ultra-Orthodox” parties – Aryeh Deri’s Shas (11 seats) and Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism (7 seats) – participated in the governing coalition with the leading Likud party.  

Instead, one of two “rising stars” in the 2013 election, Naftali Bennett’s The Jewish Home party, which won 12 seats, joined the ruling coalition, along with the other “star,” Yair Lapid’s (non-religious) party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”).  Yesh Atid won 19 seats, second only to the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu coalition with (31).   This made it possible for a coalition to be formed without any haredi participation.     

Let’s take a closer look at these three main religious parties.

First, Shas.  Its name is an acronym for “Shomrei Sfarad” – Sephardi Guardians (of Torah) -- although “Shas” is also a common acronym for “Shisha Sedarim” – referring to the six “orders” of Mishnah/Talmud.  These two references succinctly summarize Shas’s reason for existence: to promote and protect observant Jewish Sephardic (i.e., rooted in the Spain and Portugal) and Mizrahi (rooted in Middle Eastern/Arab lands) culture.  As the primary party to identify with Sephardic voters, Shas’s support extends beyond the religiously observant.  This points out another political complication: members of religious political parties aren’t necessarily religious themselves!  Also, Sephardic Judaism did not experience a “reformation” parallel to that of Askenazic Jewry in Western Europe; hence, there is no “Reform” or “Liberal” Sephardic Judaism.    

Shas was formed in 1984, with its ideology most closely identified with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, z”l, who died in 2013.  Until that year, Shas sat in the Governing Coalition, whether the ruling party was right-wing (Likud) or left (Labor).  Due to typically close elections, Shas was able to exercise disproportionate influence and to garner funding for its causes.  Two notable events concerning Shas leadership occurred in December, 2014.  The second-in-command, Aryeh Deri, resigned when audio recordings surfaced in which Rabbi Yosef had criticized him.  Also, party leader Eli Yishai, who had led Shas for more than a decade, left to form a new party, Yachad-Ha’am Etanu (“Together-the Nation is with Us”).  Deri then withdrew his resignation and returned to Shas as its party leader.  

In current polls, Shas is expected to win 7-8 seats (down from its current eleven) and Yachad is predicted to win about four.  However, the balance may shift further toward Yachad, as multiple prominent rabbis who supported Shas have recently announced their support for Yachad.  Yachad’s announced goals are to “’break down the barriers between the religious and secular, between Ashkenazi and Sephardi [Jews]’ …. [and to] support “social justice and concern for the poor, to the underprivileged, the periphery and development towns.”

The other principal Haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” party is United Torah Judaism.  Formed in 1992 and led by Yaakov Litzman, UTJ is a coalition of two smaller Haredi parties, Degel HaTorah (Flag of Torah) and Agudat Israel (Union of Israel), which represent non-Hasidic and Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews, respectively.  Chabad has traditionally supported UTJ, although recent news reports suggest that this support may be in jeopardy over UTJ’s alleged willingness to cede land to the Palestinians in any peace agreement.  Current polls project that UTJ will retain its current seven seats.  

The leaders of both Shas and UTJ have recently announced that they will not agree to participate in a government with Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, whom they regard as an enemy of their parties, particularly for his role in passing a law providing for conscription of Orthodox men into the military. We shall see. 

The other principal religious party is not Haredi. It is The Jewish Home HaBayit HaYehudi.  Its charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett, is the son of American immigrants and a successful high-tech entrepreneur who served in an elite IDF unit.  He is socially reform-minded (“we have to stop fighting each other and must bring Haredi and Arabs into society”), somewhat conservative economically (reduce government control over the economy and reduce taxes), and politically very right-wing.  

The Jewish Home party believes that the “peace process” with the Palestinians is dead – if it was ever legitimate in the first place.  It contends that Israel must accept this truth and, in Bennett’s phrase, “stop apologizing already” for defending itself against its enemies, no matter what the world may think.  According to The Jewish Home, Israel should continue building settlements, abandon negotiations to cede land that G-d-gave to the Jews, and annex portions  (Area C) of Judea and Samaria, aka the “West Bank.”  

Bennett’s “Religious Zionist” party won twelve seats in 2013 and is expected to hold these in the coming election, perhaps resulting in Bennett garnering the Defense Ministry portfolio in Bibi Netanyahu’s fourth term as Prime Minister, if he wins.  The party’s core consistency is the Modern (non-Haredi) Orthodox.  It’s important to remember that all three religious parties, with their current one-third of total Knesset seats, sit to the political right of Prime Minister Netenyahu’s Likud coalition.  Even though Bennett’s party is part of his coalition, he must be careful to protect his outspoken right flank.  

I hope that this introduction provides you at least a passing familiarity with the main religious parties expected to be a part of the next Knesset. Whether any of these parties will end up in the new government coalition, or, as in the case of Shas and United Torah Judaism, will be in the opposition, will be one of the many very interesting things to watch during the post-Election maneuvering.  

Shabbat shalom.

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