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No Separation: The Role of Religion in Israel’s State Affairs

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Children watch as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man casts his vote during Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, in Jerusalem. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ MENAHEM KAHANA

The issue of religion and state is a central but complicated one in Israel for many reasons. Because there is no constitutional separation between the two, religious matters are political and often determined within the political realm. Even changing the clocks for summer time and winter time is the subject of political battles as a result of religious interests in the beginning or end of the Sabbath. The possibility for businesses and places of work to be open on the day prescribed by the Jewish faith as a day of rest is a constant source of political dispute, to the extent that it has brought down governments.

The other important issue under religious control is marriage and divorce. Because of religious demands, there is no civil marriage in Israel. All matters relating to marriage and divorce (with some exceptions for division of property) are determined by the respective religious courts (Jewish, Muslim, Christian), as was the custom in the Ottoman Empire that once ruled the region. For Jews, these courts are governed by the Orthodox stream of Judaism.

However, there are some who advocate the use of Jewish religious law even in the civil courts. These advocates are often contenders for political power. And herein lies the major flaw in the system: there are a number of small religious parties in Israel. They vary in composition, and some, such as Shas, which represents the interests of Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews, are ethnically based as well as religious. However, given the electoral system of proportional representation and coalition governments, these parties have power well beyond their relatively small numbers within the general population and the Knesset (parliament).

Statistics vary, but the religious breakdown of the Jewish population in 2019 is roughly as follows: 49 per cent self-describe as secular, 25 per cent as traditional, 13 per cent as religious (Orthodox or so-called ‘national-religious’) and around 9 per cent as ultra-Orthodox.

From the earliest days of the Jewish state (and in the pre-state institutions), the religious parties (ultra-Orthodox and national-religious) could, and did, tip the balance for one or other of the large parties seeking to create a coalition. In all, there are quite a few religious parties, the smallest and most problematic of which are those representing the ultra-Orthodox religious communities. Generally, the ultra-Orthodox parties have sided with the leading party that offered them the most, often funding for their independent but state-supported schools but also child allowances and other payouts.

The larger, national-religious parties have their demands as well, especially as they have become more religiously and politically conservative. Because of the right-wing orientation of the national-religious parties, their choice for the leadership of a coalition is usually clear, although they can still make quite serious demands. In the elections on 17 September 2019, they will be supported by newer, even more nationalistic and religious parties created before the previous elections in April 2019, which were unable to produce a coalition government.

However, it is the ultra-Orthodox parties that once again could tip the balance and enable the creation of a center or even center-left coalition. In the April 2019 elections, the ultra-Orthodox parties won eight seats each. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party won 35 seats, and he was in talks with, among others, former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party (five seats) and the ultra-Orthodox parties to reach the minimum 61 seats needed to form a majority government.

The main reason the last coalition talks failed was disagreements over a conscription bill that would make military service compulsory for all, including those previously exempted if studying full-time in a religious seminary (yeshiva).

As the ultra-Orthodox community grew (from a few thousand when Israel was established in 1948 to over a million in 2019), objections to this exemption increased among the secular public. Several bills were proposed and one even passed its first reading in the Knesset last year. Despite compromises and arguments over the wording – how many ultra-Orthodox men could be conscripted, at what age, for how long, under what conditions and so on – the issue has remained unresolved although almost 1,000 ultra-Orthodox men already serve in the army, in special units designed to accommodate their more stringent religious needs.

The conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, which Lieberman supports, was the issue he used to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. His Yisrael Beiteinu party is distinguished by its significant support from Israel’s Russian immigrant population, which includes many non-Jews and is mainly secular. Although the party won only five seats, Lieberman is now trying to position himself as the hero of the country’s secular majority, using the conscription issue to support his position.

But this is not the whole picture. The Blue and White party, which tied with Likud in April with 35 seats, is an alliance of several parties and personalities. The leadership is made up of former chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the head of the popular centrist Yesh Atid party. In the past, Lapid also championed the secular public and demanded the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men. Nonetheless, he and the ultra-Orthodox parties managed to serve in the same coalitions, apparently by reaching a compromise on the issue.

An important question in September will be the degree to which either Lapid or Lieberman will stand firm on their support for conscription.

However, this will not be the only issue in September. The far right may regain the few seats it lost in the last elections, thereby neutralizing Lieberman. The ultimate coalition will be determined by whatever changes take place within the two main blocs, the center right and the center left. But the ultra-Orthodox parties will once again have a major voice, and it is probably the general public that will suffer from these parties’ demands.

As in the past, these parties may well have the opportunity to change the character of the country, especially in a coalition with Netanyahu and the more extreme religious-nationalist right. In fact, Netanyahu has already included in his transitional government two members of the extreme right-wing religious (although not ultra-Orthodox) United Right List party, one of whom suggested that Jewish religious law replace civil law. Thus, it is not only the ultra-Orthodox parties that could change the character of Israel if Netanyahu once again struggles to form a coalition after 17 September.

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