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Saturday, November 29, 2014

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Israel after the election

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It’s still generally assumed, though increasingly uncertain, that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as the prime minister of Israel after next Tuesday’s election, but the composition of his government may change drastically. It’s even possible that, contrary to what has become the norm, he or a rival could form a viable coalition without the participation of haredi political parties.

This is because in the course of the current election campaign, contending parties, some of them new, have hinted, albeit ambiguously and erratically, at the possibility of serving under Netanyahu. They could replace traditional haredi partners who in the past have tended to support the prime minister in matters of foreign and domestic policy in lieu of special concessions for their institutions and adherents. 

Hiddush (renewal) describes itself as a trans-denominational non-profit organization outside party politics that seeks to act as a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. It aims to promote religious freedom and equality in the Jewish state. Those who’ve endorsed Hiddush include Charles Bronfman, the Canadian businessman and philanthropist; Prof. Alan Dershowitz, one of the best-known and most articulate advocates of Israel in the United States, and the distinguished Israeli writer Amos Oz.

The latest Hiddush-sponsored opinion poll, published at the end of last year in anticipation of the election, indicates that tensions between secular and haredi Jews in Israel are seen by the public as greatly surpassing other domestic issues.

Some 71 per cent of Israelis view it as the most or the second-most acute problem the country is facing, compared to 41 per cent who put the strife between the political right and left high up on their list, 33 per cent who see the rift between rich and poor as critical and 16 per cent who view the traditional divide between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews as the most troublesome aspect of Israeli internal politics.

Stanley Gold, the Los Angeles-based American businessman and Jewish leader who chairs the board of Hiddush, and its president, Rabbi Uri Regev, the well-known Israeli human rights advocate and former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, write: “Even though the Iranian threat seems to shadow the elections, the issue most prevalent in Israeli society, adversely impacting Israel’s economy, security, gender equality, religious freedom and human dignity, is the worsening conflict between religion and state and between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox.”

Many in the Diaspora may find this uncomfortable, because they believe themselves to be defending Israel’s international standing by uncritically supporting all the policies of its government. The situation described by Hiddush challenges the acquiescence that likes to heed statements by Israeli politicians in power who argue that although the widening religious gap may be serious, in view of Israel’s other problems, it’s not urgent.  

But things may be changing. A growing number of Israelis have come to realize that the existence of a large and economically unproductive population that depends on state handouts for its survival can no longer be tolerated. Nor can discrimination against women by haredim be accepted. Not to have access to government resources via the ballot box may force them to rethink their position.

Virtually all Jews outside Israel live in countries where religious freedom and gender equality prevail, and they’re the beneficiaries. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that ultimately they won’t support such discrimination in the Jewish state. Jews in the Diaspora, irrespective of religious affiliation, work for a living without massive dependence on the state. They may expect something similar in Israel. The involvement of prominent Diaspora leaders in Hiddush points in that direction.

And there’re reasons to believe that the non-Orthodox majority in Israel won’t wish to live indefinitely with the status quo. This, in turn, may enable the next prime minister to form a government without the support of the entrenched Orthodox establishment.

Such a move would greatly stimulate economic growth. At present, some 900,000 Israeli children live below the poverty line. Many of them come from large haredi families where fathers spend time allegedly studying Torah and living off welfare while mothers are too burdened by childbirth and childcare to work outside the home.

In the Diaspora, on the other hand, even haredi Jews have to a very large extent accommodated themselves to the economic realities of the countries in which they reside. Most earn a living that provides for their families. They may serve as role models for their Israeli counterparts.

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