Of all the representatives of the religious parties in Israel’s Knesset, none have been more powerful or outspoken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served as Chairman of the Finance Committee in the last parliament. In this key fiscal position, the rabbi was a master at diverting funds to haredi causes, especially yeshiva subsidies to the separate school system devoted mainly to teaching and debating the Torah—the religious academies that some secular Jews have angrily characterized as Jewish madrassas.
Now that secular representatives are in the ascendant following January’s national elections, Gafni has turned angrily on Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing his former political ally of betrayal. But in order to form a coalition Netanyahu needs the votes of two new parties, one the tribune of religious nationalists and the other of secular Israelis. Both refuse to serve in any government that includes ultras like Rabbi Gafni, largely because his supporters demand continued exemption from military service.
In the snake pit of Israeli politics, it could be payback time for Bibi for abandoning his ultra-Orthodox supporters in order to stay in power as prime minister, and this could have international repercussions far beyond the local problems of the yeshivot. The rabbi has warned that Netanyahu will soon “be sorry” for deceiving him and the other representatives of the ultras by “shamefully” leaving them out of power.
In an article in the popular daily Yedioth Aharonot, Rabbi Gafni admitted that although in his former capacity as Finance Committee chairman he was supposed to oversee the expenditures formally approved by the Knesset, almost every day money was dispensed “under the radar”—his words—for the benefit of Netanyahu’s Likud party, then the dominant parliamentary group. Since Gafni now has blown the whistle on what are politely called “unofficial” budgets, that almost certainly means the end of such disbursements, not only for the religious parties but for the parties that will serve in government when the new coalition is formed, probably later this month.
What disturbs Gafni and his religious colleagues most are the warnings expressed not only by the politicians but above all by the technicians and experts of the Ministry of Finance. They were, of course, fully aware of the tricks used to pad budgets and transfer government money off the books, but they dared not clash with any Likud finance minister or with Gafni’s own Knesset Finance Committee.
That leaves Gafni holding a powerful hand that could embarrass Netanyahu if he shows it. The rabbi made it clear that through the years he had accumulated substantial information about how to tamper with the budget and would have no hesitation in using it against the ruling parties that are willing to shut him out of government and probably will succeed. His most powerful trump most likely would be disclosing payments believed to have been funneled through Bibi’s former government to support illegal West Bank settlements, for example the ones that put down a few armed families in trailers atop Palestinian hilltops and then spread, seeking official recognition.
The establishment and expansion of these and other more organized settlements is viewed by the Obama administration as a principal barrier to any peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Netanyahu has always insisted they do not have the support of his government. It is not hard to imagine how it would put him at a disadvantage if all this comes out while he is dealing with Washington.
No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.
I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.
Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation’s coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel’s enemies.
American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are “many shades of black.” But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.
Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture
It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other’s tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.
For many years the political power of Israel’s Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.
But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.
It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.
To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel’s largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.
Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel’s political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.
Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.
But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.