Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Excluded From Coalition, Face Loss of Power

A new coalition that aims to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office could also usher in a more liberal civil rights agenda.

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JERUSALEM — Still reeling from bearing the brunt of Israel’s coronavirus pandemic, then a deadly stampede at a religious festival, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews now face the prospect of losing the power they have wielded in government — a setback that could relax some of the strictures on life in Israel.

The heterogeneous coalition that is emerging to replace the 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spans the Israeli political spectrum from left to right, including secular parties, modern Orthodox politicians from the religious Zionist camp and even a small Arab, Islamist party.

Missing are the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, a Hebrew term for those who tremble before God. Their political representatives have sat in most, though not all, governments of Israel since the late 1970s, when the right-wing Likud party upended decades of political hegemony by the state’s socialist founders.

Over the years, the two main Haredi parties have forged a tight alliance with Mr. Netanyahu, the Likud leader, and leveraged their role as linchpins in a series of governing coalitions. There, they have wielded what many critics view as disproportionate power over state policy that became apparent as they successfully fought or, in the case of some sects, simply refused to follow pandemic restrictions.

The influence and official privileges of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 13 percent of the population, have created resentment among mainstream Israelis and alienated many Jews abroad who practice less stringent forms of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, the state religious authority, dominates official Jewish marriage, divorce and religious conversions and does not recognize the legitimacy of Reform or Conservative rabbis or Judaism.

Haredi politicians promote a conservative social agenda that opposes civil marriage, gay rights, and work or public transportation on the sabbath, often blocking a civil rights agenda held dear by many members of the new coalition. They support an independent education system that focuses on religious studies and largely shuns secular education for boys.

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Portraits of rabbis at a street stall in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem in March.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Haredi parties have also secured generous state funding for their people and institutions, enabling many to engage in extended Torah study and avoid the military service that is compulsory for others.

Now Haredi rabbis are sounding the alarm.

“Fear and vigilance among Haredi Jewry,” declared HaMevaser, a daily paper representing the Hasidic wing of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism, in a red banner headline above this week’s news of the coalition deal.

“The world of Torah and the Jewish character of the Land of Israel are in dire and imminent danger,” the Council of Torah Sages, which guides Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, warned in a statement.

The emerging coalition, which will take power if it wins a parliamentary vote of confidence, is the result of an alliance between the secular, centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the modern Orthodox leader of a small, hard-right party. Mr. Bennett is designated to serve as prime minister for the first half of the new government’s four-year term.

The pair last formed an alliance in 2013, joining a Netanyahu-led coalition that kept the Haredi parties out of power for two years. But reforms and cuts in Haredi funding were quickly rescinded by the next government.

This time, they are seeking to present their coalition as an inclusive one meant to heal, not exacerbate, the divisions in Israeli society.

“This government will not ill-treat or harm anyone,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview with N12, Israel’s most watched news broadcast. “This is not a government of ‘anti’. We are not against the settlers, against the secular public, against the Arabs or against the Haredim.”

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Ultra-Orthodox men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City last summer.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

Nevertheless, party officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing coalition negotiations, said the Haredi public could, like others, be affected materially by budget cuts, as well as in the more ideological realm on delicate issues of state and religion.

There is talk of reforms such as introducing civil marriage, including for same-sex couples, and allowing public transportation in secular areas on the sabbath, changes that would not affect Haredim in their own daily lives but would upset the status quo and rile them.

Another possible move would be to open up the market for the licensing of kosher foods, in which the Haredim have lucrative vested interests.

The expected appointment as finance minister of Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist party and a nemesis of the Haredim, is a special concern for the ultra-Orthodox. A Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker is also slated to chair the parliamentary finance committee, which was in United Torah Judaism’s hands for more than a decade.

Israel’s political deadlock has led to four inconclusive elections in two years and left the country without a formal state budget even as it struggled to preserve the economy through the pandemic. Mr. Liberman said on Thursday that the coalition’s priority would be dealing with unemployment and the growing national deficit.

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Avigdor Liberman, head of a secular nationalist party, outside the Knesset last summer.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Liberman has long advocated slashing funding for religious seminaries and stipends that enable Haredi men to study indefinitely in yeshivas rather than hold jobs. He has campaigned for legislation to curb, however symbolically, the wholesale exemption from army service traditionally granted to full-time yeshiva students.

And with the Haredi population rapidly expanding, he wants ultra-Orthodox schools to be forced to teach core secular subjects such as math and English, the better to equip students for the work force.

“When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox, Avigdor Liberman’s worldview is to incentivize greater and more equal contribution to wider Israeli society,” said Ashley Perry, a communications consultant who has advised Mr. Liberman in the past.

In general, Mr. Perry said, the new coalition would seek to reduce the current monopoly of the Haredi-run, central religious authorities over many aspects of Jewish life and liberalize the system by handing more powers to local rabbis.

The Haredim, who mostly live frugally, typically with large families in small apartments, say they contribute by devoting themselves to the Torah and bringing divine protection upon Israel.

“There is great fear and anger,” said Israel Cohen, a prominent commentator with Kol Berama, a Haredi radio station — fear of the uncompromising Mr. Liberman, who made a campaign motto out of his pledge that “My word is my word,” and anger at Mr. Bennett for joining forces with Mr. Lapid again.

Many commentators have noted that the Haredim could find an ally in the Islamist party in the coalition, which is equally conservative when it comes to issues such as gay rights. But Mr. Cohen said there is “a difference between any conservative and a Jewish conservative” on preserving the sanctity of the sabbath and Jewish holidays.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem’s Old City last month.Credit…Felipe Dana/Associated Press

Since the coalition is made up of eight parties with hugely divergent ideologies and agendas, analysts say it would likely have to rule by consensus, mitigating any drastic action. Mr. Bennett and other members also want to maintain their relations with the Haredi parties and leave the door open for future cooperation.

Mr. Bennett said the idea was to create more job opportunities to help Haredim who want to advance, and that Mr. Liberman had given his word not to act specifically against the Haredim. But that has not allayed the deeper concerns.

“What worries us,” said Yitzhak Zeev Pindrus, a United Torah Judaism lawmaker and one of 16 Haredi members of the 120-seat Parliament, “is not what will happen to the Haredi sector, but what will happen to Israel as a Jewish state.”

The tension between democratic civil rights and the Jewish character of the state is “the dilemma that we struggle with all the time,” he said. “We will have to fight.”

Mr. Pindrus said the Haredi parties would try to exploit the differences within the new coalition and had survived before in the opposition, and would survive again, adding, “We never relied on anyone but ourselves.”

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