Tel Aviv Diary: Ultra-Orthodox Turn Up the Heat

The Israeli government and or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to approve three exceedingly unpopular proposals in the last few days.

It did so as a result of the political pressure wielded by the ultra-Orthodox factions, who make up 8 percent of the Israeli population.

First, the ultra-Orthodox urged that repair work must not be done on Israel’s railroads during the Sabbath. Netanyahu agreed and ordered all such work stopped.

Second, the ultra-Orthodox insisted on the cancellation of the agreement reached to create a distinct area of the Western Wall that dedicated for egalitarian prayer, (which, incidentally had been approved by this current government) and this long and fiercely negotiated, good-faith compromise was set aside.

Third, the ultra-Orthodox demanded that only conversions done under their auspices be recognized by the state, and now a new law was approved by the government makes that so. The second two decisions have provoked outrage in the American Jewish community.

A bit of explanation is necessary to clarify who the ultra-Orthodox are.

GettyImages-517401416 An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man dances on a table in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on March 24, 2016 during the feast of Purim. The carnival-like Purim holiday is celebrated with parades and costume parties to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them in the ancient Persian empire 2,500 years ago, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty

Ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism developed in 18th century Europe, as a response to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment and the Emancipation allowed Jews to become integrated in the larger European society, without having to convert to Christianity.  

Jews responded in a number of ways. Many Jews became secular, while others founded Reform Judaism, which was an early attempt to integrate Judaism into a largely Christian world.

Others founded what we know of today as Modern Orthodoxy, a version of Orthodoxy that says you can integrate professionally into the modern world, while still maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle.

Finally, there was the response asserted that Jews must cut themselves off from others — to the best of their ability— and live in self-imposed ghettos. The world of this last group is best summed up with a statement made by one of the founders of the ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Chatam Sofer, who said: “What is new, is bad.”

It should noted that in 19th century Europe, a new movement developed that was Zionism. The greatest opponents of Zionism were the ultra-Orthodox, who opposed any attempt to build a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah.

One more point of information is necessary to understand what has happened and that is Israel’s fragile coalition system. In order to form a government in Israel, you need the support of 61 (out of 120) members of the Knesset.

In the early years of the state, the party in power would of often gain 40 seats or more, thus it would not be difficult to put together a coalition, (i.e., finding another 21+ members to join). Today, the major parties receive significantly fewer votes, and despite repeated attempts to reform the system, it is still necessary to gain support from many smaller swing parties in order to govern.

Until the 1980s, the ultra-Orthodox parties refrained from joining Israeli governments, and thus, were largely outside the coalition negotiations. Since that time, they have used the system to their advantage in obtaining funding for their institutions and ensuring that their children do not have to go the army.

The ultra-Orthodox parties ( Yahadut HaTorah and Shas ) are key members of the Netanyahu Coalition. Politics is always a challenge, but one of the underlying foundations of coalition building is that they tend to remain stable, only as long as members do not believe it is in their interest to have new elections.

In the case of the ultra-Orthodox parties, however, its is not the politicians who make most of the choices, but rather, the Rabbis who hand down decisions. Thanks to the Internet and smartphones—which despite attempts of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban them and the increasing needs (especially for women) to enter the workforce—the control of the Rabbis on their communities has lessened.

Moreover, In the last decade, a significant number of ultra-Orthodox have chosen to leave the community. These phenomena have resulted in the rabbis doubling-down, often taking ever more extreme positions, which their politicians are obligated to follow.

Over the years, most Israelis have navigated their rather uneasy rapport with religion, and particularly where the ultra-Orthodox are concerned. The State of Israel inherited the system that was put into place during the British Mandate; where individual religions maintain responsibility for the personal status of their members.

It has always been a perplexing relationship since only 10 percent of Israelis claim to be religious and another 8 percent Ultra Orthodox. Non-religious Israelis are often upset when ultra-Orthodox control interferes with their own lives – as it does when marriage, divorce, and death are involved.

Furthermore, over the years the fact that the ultra-religious do not serve in the army has repeatedly remained a hot button issue.

There are a number of events that took place, going back to the end of the 1980s, that drove us to the events of the last few days.

First, the aforementioned increase in the political power of the ultra-Orthodox; second the immigration of a large number of Soviet Jews, most of whom were not religious and many of whom are either themselves or the product of a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, thus rendering many of not recognized as being Jewish, according to traditional Jewish law.

In subsequent years, the religious establishment became simultaneously more extreme, as the last of the modern orthodox in its ranks were replaced by ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, who made it almost impossible for the immigrants and their descendants to convert.

Finally, in 1989 the First International Jewish Feminist Conference was held in Jerusalem. When their attendees tried to pray at the Western Wall, they were assaulted by the ultra-Orthodox, thus beginning the struggle of Women of the Wall (W.O.W.) for the right for women to pray publicly at the Western Wall.

That fight had its up and downs over the years, with the Israeli Supreme Court intervening a number of times. However, the battle was to end after with an agreement — approved by the sitting  Israeli government — established a separate prayer space to the South of the what is currently referred to as the Western Wall; a space that would be jointly administered by all streams of Judaism.

After approving this agreement the government did little to implement it. At the same time, in order to help those who were not being allowed to convert by the Chief Rabbinate, other Orthodox Rabbis created conversion courts to provide alternative means of conversion.  

All of this came to a head at the Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Last week, the ultra-Orthodox successfully forced Netanyahu to call off vital repair work on the railroads that was scheduled to be implemented this Saturday (something that has been happening since the beginning of the establishment of this country), with the threat  of bringing down his government.

After Netanyahu caved over the railroad, they upped their demands and insisted on an immediate and public end to the Western Wall agreement, and to the passing of a new law, making conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate (controlled by the ultra-Orthodox) the only recognized conversions in Israel.

Organized American Jewry, which is made up overwhelmingly of Reform and Conservative Jews, was aghast. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, who was asked by Netanyahu to extend his term to see the agreement through to completion stated:

Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency, nevertheless, remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people.  

The Jewish Agency Board of Governors cancelled a dinner meeting that had been planned with Netanyahu for Monday night. The Board of Governors, who met today, was as angry with the decision on conversion as it was regarding the Western Wall decision. In both cases, it was clear Netanyahu had decided that the political harm the organized Jewish community can do to him is much less than what the ultra-Orthodox can do.

That decision is no doubt reinforced by the fact that (as opposed to President Obama, who had many ties to the mainstream and liberal Jewish American community), almost all of President Trump's ties – both personal and professional — come from the Orthodox world.

So, where do we go from here? Professor Yitzhak Reiter of Hebrew University and Ashkelon College, and author of the recent book, entitled Erosion of the Status Quo, stated:

We have returned to square one. I believe that the fight will resume with greater intensity. We will see more violence at the Kotel and an increase in tension between American Jewry and the Israeli government. The government lost the trust of the American Jews once it retreated from the agreement.

It is not clear how deep of a fissure Netanyahu has created. Will American Jews cancel visits? Stop giving to UJA or the JNF? Will they pull back from AIPAC?

Ultimately, I doubt it. This specific issue is not an issue most Israelis care about, since they are uninterested in praying at the Western Wall in any case. Most care more about the decision to stop essential repairing the railroad on Saturday, and the implications for future strictures yet to be imposed.

The only way American Jews can impact Israeli government decisions on religious matters is either by building coalitions with Israelis on issues that Israelis care about, or taking action that really hurt the Israeli government.

However, American Jews will find it hard to hurt Israel because of disagreements they may have with the current government. Recent survey have already shown a growing gap between Israel and American Jewry, especially among the young. The Israeli government has pledged to find way to repair this gash.

Unfortunately, the only thing they seem capable of doing, is making it worse.

Marc Schulman is a Multimedia Historian.