Regressing With the Ultra-Orthodox (Hard Questions Tough Answers- February 6, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The public protest against the Netanyahu government’s ‘reforms’ has been focusing on attempts to downgrade Israel’s judicial branch of government at a huge cost to democracy, to the economy, and to Israel’s international standing. Why is everyone ignoring the rather different changes promised to the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim?

A. The public-at-large is ignoring these radical changes ostensibly because they bear no immediate cost for non-Haredim. The public is much more attuned to the Netanyahu coalition’s threat to public broadcasting, to its promise to weaken the anti-discrimination law, to its “patriotic” new restrictions on Hamas prisoners (guaranteed to provoke more West Bank violence and a rocket attack from Gaza), and of course to the threat to the judicial branch of government.

As to the changes the Haredim have been promised by Netanyahu, so far they remain below the public’s radar. Indeed, here and there a few non-Haredim might even benefit in the near term. But ultimately, the cost to Israel’s entire way of life will be considerable. Accordingly, ignoring the Haredi scheme now will be disastrous down the road.

Q. Example?

A. Let’s start with a relatively ‘lite’ example. Israel is a crowded country. Urban high-rise apartment buildings are reaching higher and higher, including for the ultra-Orthodox. Not surprisingly, cemeteries have become crowded, too, and to save space burial has moved from individual plots to multi-story burial structures.

Now the Haredi coalition agreements comprise a ‘burial reform’ under which anyone who wishes can be buried in the ground, not in a multi-story structure in which the dead are effectively ‘stacked’. Inevitably, there are non-Haredim as well as Haredim who will prefer this. This means that many acres of valuable public space near municipalities will now be allocated for cemetery expansion rather than for dwellings or recreation. Yet Israel is already one of the most crowded countries in the world.

An even more bizarre and retrograde example concerns Israel’s government offices. The computer/internet age has allowed the bureaucracy to modernize in ways familiar to anyone in nearly any country who requires government services, from requesting a prescription online to paying bills from the comfort of your home. Now, in a regression to the 1980s, government offices will be required by the Haredi parties’ coalition agreement to provide in-person ‘frontal’ service on demand.

Yes, I know, we all on occasion get fed up pushing buttons on our phones and long to talk to a real person. But here the logic is truly retrograde. Because non-religious education is effectively denied to Haredi youngsters by the Haredi leadership, many never acquire minimal computer skills. Even Haredi cellphones are self-censored to keep out secular culture.

Q. Troubling, but hardly earthshaking . . .

A. Hold on, we are just warming up. Fully 52 out of 140 clauses in the Haredi party coalition agreements deal with ways to isolate Haredi education so as to protect Haredi youth from the blasphemies of the secular world. Like the two examples cited above, it is the taxpaying Israeli public that will pay for all this.

Thus, the Haredi party coalition agreements require that what little secular education has until now crept into Haredi education in order to guarantee government financing, can be removed without penalties. What little progress has been made in integrating Haredi education dropouts into military service can now be stopped. Meanwhile, Haredi yeshiva students will be paid more (by the taxpayer) to study Talmud than compulsory service soldiers are paid to bear arms for their country.

Haredi businesses will not be required to serve everyone; they can discriminate against Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, women. Public events can be required to seat men and women separately. Haredim will enjoy special discounts on public transportation. Tenders for jobs in the public sector will be required to recognize Haredi education--which, we recall, will comprise few if any secular disciplines like mathematics and English--as equivalent to university education.

And new municipal housing projects will be required to set aside 15 percent of structures for Haredi ghetto-like neighborhoods.

Q. Okay, the Haredim are worried that their way of life is threatened by the encroachment of pervasive secular culture.

A. Nobody in Israel has ever stopped Haredim from living in ghettoes. They have long been doing so at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense. Since by and large they are a non-productive sector, that means they live at the expense of non-Haredi taxpayers. What is new in these coalition agreements is the Haredi demand to upgrade their living standards at the expense of the rest of us, further exclude secular intrusion, and further impose their standards on the rest of us--at our expense, of course.

But that is not all. The Haredim and the extreme right messianic Orthodox in this coalition want to make sure that fewer secular Jews can live in Israel. Given the high birthrate among religious Jews of all grades in Israel, this reflects a strategy for eventually expanding Orthodox Jewish strictures into all walks of Israeli life.

Q. How will this work?

A. The coalition agreement of the Ashkenazic Torah Judaism party calls for “reduction of the Law of Return” by means of eliminating the ‘grandparent’ provision. This means that people who identify as Jews and wish to immigrate to Israel from Russia and Ukraine but can only cite the existence of a Jewish grandparent to ‘prove’ their Jewishness, will not be permitted to come to Israel, as have tens of thousands since the Ukraine war began around a year ago. It means that assimilated American Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel but can only cite a Jewish grandparent will no longer be welcomed.

The grandparent clause in Israel’s immigration law is based on the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws that, for purposes of extermination,  defined a Jew as anyone with a Jewish grandparent. Defining ‘who is a Jew’ this way for purposes of immigration was Zionism’s answer to history.

The Haredim, with messianic Orthodox support, are prepared to turn their back on this legacy of the Holocaust because they recognize that most Jews who need to invoke the grandparent clause are not Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. They are secular. Keeping them out, while maintaining a high birthrate, will speed the day when religious Jews in Israel can impose halacha (Orthodox Jewish practice) on everyone. The ‘Jewish’ in ‘Jewish and democratic’ will no longer refer to Jewish peoplehood and nationhood but rather to strict Jewish religiosity, including discriminating provisions regarding non-Jews and women that will render Israel less than democratic.

Note that conversion performed in Israel, which already must be Orthodox, is a hostile challenge for Jews from the Former Soviet Union who have the persistence to pursue it. If the Haredim and messianic Orthodox now succeed in eliminating the grandparent clause, they will next seek to ban from Israel non-Orthodox streams of Judaism like the Reform and Conservative movements and cancel recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and marriages from abroad. They will invade Israel’s secular schools.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Haredim make up around 12 percent of Israel’s population. Ever since, in the early days of the state, David Ben Gurion agreed to give a few hundred Haredi yeshiva youth an exemption from compulsory military service, the Haredim have been exploiting their high birth rate and the consequent growing clout of their political parties to aggrandize their special status.

Note, for the record, that none of this would have been possible during the past 75 years without the connivance and tolerance of the Israeli public-at-large, including secular and left-wing Jews, through Israel’s political institutions. And note, again for the record, that Netanyahu’s current coalition with the non-Haredi Likud making up fully half its members has agreed to these Haredi demands largely in order to ensure that judicial reform enables cancellation of (the secular) Netanyahu’s corruption trials.

Now, as members of Israel’s most right-religious coalition in history, and with the mainstream non-Orthodox public preoccupied with Netanyahu’s legal and institutional reforms, the Haredim seemingly have an unusual opportunity to solidify, expand and impose their institutionalized exceptionalism--as always at the public’s expense. If they succeed, this is one more repugnant way in which Israel will never be the same.

Lots of countries and religions have cultish extremes. This is one particularly parasitic cult that appears to aspire to dominate Israel.

The concerned public--Israelis, Diaspora Jews, friends of a democratic Israel--must wake up to this additional, ‘sleeper’ challenge. Now, before all the oppressive and retrograde laws are enacted.