The country’s ultra-orthodox power brokers are losing influence as more moderate forces push back.
On Saturday, only days after the collapse of government coalition talks, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens boarded buses for what will go down in Israeli history as the first freedom rides.
For generations, public transport in most Israeli cities has been banned on the Sabbath at the insistence of small Haredi (ultra-orthodox) political parties. The secular majority accepted this as part of the religious status quo, which has ruled matters of personal status and influenced public policy since the inception of the Israeli state.
Grass roots resistance to this status quo has been growing fitfully for years, however, often abetted by local politicians not intimidated by the ultra-orthodox rabbis. It was the mayor of Tel Aviv who ordered the Sabbath buses. Over the years, he had permitted other abominations such as public performances by female singers, the sale of pork chops and the city’s annual Gay Pride festival.
Now the power of the rabbis is being challenged on the national level. The unlikely agent of liberal change is Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish former Likud Party member, who now leads an ethnic Russian immigrant party, Israel Beiteinu. Over the years, Lieberman has embraced and discarded many political affiliations and identities. In the recent election he ran on an explicitly anti-clerical platform and won enough votes (including from disaffected liberals) to stymie the creation of a Likud government that included two Haredi — Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Lieberman celebrated his victory with a startlingly frank attack on the rabbis. “The time has come,” he announced, “to call things by their proper names.” He labelled the ultra-orthodox parties “a threat to Israeli security” and accused them of collaboration with the overtly anti-Zionist Arab Joint List.
Lieberman then made his case against the rabbis, starting with their control over matters of personal status. A majority of Israelis approve of civil marriage and none more than Lieberman’s Russian base, many of whom were admitted under the Law of Return but are not considered kosher under Jewish law. These include more than 5,500 Israeli soldiers. “They are Jewish enough to fight for their country but not to be married in it,” he said.
Lieberman contrasted this with the children of the ultra-orthodox community who are exempt from military duty. Keeping them out of the army is, in fact, one of the chief goals of the rabbinical parties. “There are 150,000 young men of military age whose occupation is sitting in a study hall learning Torah,” he said. “I have nothing against that, but let them do it on their own time.” He pointed out that the army annually grants 1,500 deferments to exceptionally talented students studying medicine, engineering or other essential subjects.
This position, which is supported by almost 70% of the Israeli public, was loudly denounced by Haredi politicians and rabbis as anti-Semitic. But Lieberman was not silenced. He pointed to the fact that these lifetime scholars do not work for a living. “Only 22% of Israelis pay taxes,” he said. The scholars and their families make up a good part of the group that doesn’t.
Even those who want to join the working are often unqualified. The Haredi school system, which is independent, does not offer English, science, geography, history or more than basic arithmetic. Three hundred thousand children are educated in these schools, and very few emerge ready for higher education or a meaningful job.
The insular nature of Haredi life has created a community that is far from the Israeli ethos. It does little to defend the country and its economic struggles are a matter of choice. Virtually their only civic activity is voting, which they do at a high level. Socializing outside their own circle is frowned upon, and Haredi families overwhelmingly reject intermarriage with secular Jews. Unsurprisingly, the feeling is mutual.
Lieberman wants to channel this sense of alienation to build support for his agenda of liberalization. He proposes a compact between the Zionist parties, from the Likud on the center-right to Blue and White, and the remnant of the Labor Party on the center-left. Their voters broadly share a common culture, a personal commitment to national security expressed by a willingness to serve in the military, a desire for less rabbinical control over personal matters and issues of Jewish identity. They also prize higher education and seek to participate in an open society and a modern economy.
These are the values that motivated many of the Sabbath freedom riders of Tel Aviv — and many of Lieberman’s voters. Their vision is of an Israel in which synagogue and state are separated and civil law predominates in every area of life. It is still a long road, but after Saturday, the busses are now running in the right direction.