The Stakes in This Israeli Election Just Got Bigger


In an 8-to-1 ruling last week, Israel’s Supreme Court decided that conversions to Judaism carried out in Israel by non-Orthodox Jewish denominations are legal. The controversial case had been before the court for 15 years, waiting for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to pass a clarifying law on the matter.

The ruling, as Noah Feldman described, goes straight to the heart of Jewish identity and Israel’s foundational Law of Return. The politicians preferred to kick this politically explosive can down the road. Ultimately, the court lost patience. It also took a measure of revenge on the recalcitrant legislators by issuing its decision just three weeks before the March 23 election.

Changes in the religious status quo in Israel are always combustible, and this one set off an explosion that could very well decide the outcome of the election — and longer term, the durability of Israeli democracy.

The leaders of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties are demanding that the Knesset override the Court’s decision. They vow not to join any ruling coalition that does not commit, in advance, to a legislative override of the court’s decision. That warning is addressed to one man: Likud Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have been Netanyahu’s loyal supporters for more than a decade. Their votes have tipped the scales in his direction in each of the last four elections. Daily polling here shows very clearly that Netanyahu cannot establish a post-election government without them.

The Prime Minister’s Likud party condemned the court’s decision, but stopped short of a promise to override it. For one thing, actually doing so would create a constitutional crisis between the judiciary and legislative branches of government. 

In the wake of the ruling, the United Torah Judaism Party — an ultra-Orthodox party that supports the government — released a campaign video depicting Reform Jews holding religious ceremonies for their canine pets. Ultra-Orthodox spokesmen offer this as proof that Reform Judaism is a fake religion and an abomination.  

As Netanyahu well knows, embracing such coalition partners will not go down well with the American Jewish community (most of whom belong to liberal denominations or are unaffiliated secularists). It will also not enhance his efforts to repair relations with the administration of President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, many of whose senior officials and Congressional leaders are, themselves, what Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies call “fake Jews.”

But these are distant problems for Netanyahu. The election comes first. And this time ultra-Orthodox votes may not be enough to put him over the top; on the contrary, they could do him in.

Haredis do not serve in the military. While women in the community are more likely to work, nearly half of the men are unemployed; many shun gainful employment and those who do want to work find they lack marketable skills. Haredi children are kept segregated from the rest of society; over a quarter suffer from food insecurity, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. They hold that this lifestyle is the fulfillment of God’s commandments. Their first allegiance is not to the secular state, but to their own community.

Hard-core secularists have always regarded the Haredim with disdain and resentment. Many other Israelis, however, have viewed them with tolerance and even grudging respect, as a small, stubborn but basically harmless remnant of the Jewish past.

That tolerance collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Haredi community was especially hard hit by the virus, but its rabbinical leaders refused to accept government public health measures. When Israel closed its schools, the Haredim kept theirs open. Despite the ban on mass gatherings, the Haredim staged massive weddings, prayer services and funerals. Government appeals fell on deaf ears. Police efforts to enforce the law were greeted with indifference or violent resistance by thousands of furious young products of the Haredi school system. 

Over the past year it has become increasingly clear that the Haredi rebellion was a symptom of something much larger. In a time of national crisis, its adherents insisted that they were above Israeli law and, indeed, the authority of the elected government. 

Haredim are now 12% of the public, and their birthrate is twice as high as the national average. Being “fruitful and multiplying” fulfills a Biblical commandment. It is also a long-term political project made possible largely by public subsidies. Demographers predict that if the current situation continues, they will constitute one-third of the population within two generations.

This has sounded alarm bells. A recent survey showed that that, by a 3-to-1 margin, Israeli voters oppose including any Haredi party in the next government coalition. Daily polls in major media outlets show a slow but consistent rise in support for anti-Haredi parties. 

The Haredim’s campaign against the Supreme Court conversion decision is also a political tactic meant to rally its base ahead of a key election. But to mainstream voters, it looks more like an attack on the legitimacy of the legal system and of a piece with the disdain for the rule of law and government authority shown by the ultra-Orthodox community during the pandemic.  

Netanyahu hasn’t explicitly said he will support legislation to override the court’s ruling but his party’s statement certainly encourage that view. With polls showing his Likud bloc falling short, Netanyahu will likely pledge whatever he thinks it takes to win a record sixth term.

Legislatures in other countries make laws to constrain the authority of the courts or define citizenship. Rarely though are the stakes so high.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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