News Analysis: Orthodox Parties Using Gains in Knesset to Bolster Influence

Bolstered by their strong showing in the Knesset elections, Israel’s three Orthodox parties are poised to play a pivotal role in the government of Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and in the new Parliament.

The National Religious Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which together won 23 Knesset seats, have been far from timid as they conduct negotiations with Netanyahu to secure ministerial positions in the Cabinet and commitments to allocate more resources, especially in education and housing, for their religious constituencies.

To be sure, they fully expect that their demands will be whittled down to something that their prospective secular coalition partners – Likud, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and The Third Way – can live with.

But as they pass their demands, the religious parties appear to be employing the logic of a Chasidic tale:

In the story, a poor Chasidic man complains to his rebbe about the extreme conditions of overcrowding in which his family is forced to live.

“Do you have a goat?” the rebbe asks.

The man confirms that he does.

“Bring him into the house to live with you, too,” the rebbe commands.

Some time later, the man returns, complaining even more bitterly about his domestic conditions.

“Remove the goat,” is the command this time.

The next day, the Chasid is back to thank the rebbe and to report that with the goat out, things at home feel immeasurably more comfortable.

In the ongoing coalition negotiations, the religious parties are pressing a crowded list of demands that include: * legislation to make permanent the “status quo” arrangements by which the Orthodox have a virutal monopoly over religious life in Israel: * forbidding the sale of pork; * stricter legislation on abortions; * tightening the Law of Return to bar people whose Jewishness is deemed suspect from immigrating to Israel; * passing a “Basic Law,” which would eventually become party of a yet-to-be-completed Israeli constitution, on the Jewishness of Israel, defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party leader Natan Sharansky has made it clear that tampering with the Law of Return would drive his party and its seven Knesset seats out of the coalition fold, and with Likud only holding 32 seats, Netanyahu will need them.

Thus, to make the Cabinet feel more comfortable, the Orthodox parties may drop some of their demands as a coalition agreement takes shape.

But where the Orthodox parties intend to stand firm is in their battle against the Reform and Conservative movements.

Specifically, the Orthodox parties demand legislation that will state categorically that all conversions to Judaism carried out in Israel must be done under the aegis of the state’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

This demand comes in the wake of a recent ruling by the High Court of Justice that non-Orthodox conversions in Israel are not prohibited. The court urged the Knesset to create specific legislation on this matter, but no action was taken by the outgoing Parliament.

Now, with the Orthodox a powerful force in the new Knesset the anticipated law will almost certainly rule out Conservative or Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The High Court ruled some years ago that non-Orthodox conversions carried out abroad are valid in Israel, and that someone thus converted must be registered as Jewish. That ruling is not – for now – under attack.

But as another prong of their strategy, the Orthodox parties may also seek measures that would effectively exclude Reform or Conservative members from local religious councils.

The religious councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel.

For his part, Netanyahu has made it clear that he does not oppose some of these steps.

Netanyahu has frankly admitted to various groups of American non-Orthodox rabbis and laymen that, in his view, Israel was not ready for religious pluralism at this time.

He also made it clear that a government under his leadership would shelve many of the aspirations of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism for greater influence and recognition.

On matter of religious observance affecting affecting the general Israeli public, the Orthodox parties say they do not want to create an atmosphere of coercion.

Nevertheless, they are demanding stricter enforcement of Sabbath observance.

There is talk of reviving a Sabbath observance squad of inspectors, under the Ministry of Labor, that tickets shops and businesses illegally operating on the day of rest.

Similarly, there are calls for more rigid enforcement of the requirement that public transportation services resume only when the Sabbath has ended.

In recent years, some bus services have operated during Saturday afternoon.

Most importantly, in the long term, is the Orthodox parties’ determination to put a brake on what the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, has termed Israel’s “constitutional revolution.”

Barak, who is seen as a bastion of liberalism – the Orthodox say anti-Orthodoxy – was referring to a series of Basic Laws passed by the Knesset in recent years on broad issues of human of civil rights that one day would be part of Israel’s constitution.

The Orthodox are uncomfortable with some of these laws, fearing that they could be construed as impinging on religious practice or might limit the authority of religious law.

With the Orthodox parties now set to play so crucial a role in government and in the Knesset, the legislative process is sure to slow down.

For these parties, the most important outcome of their electoral successes and of the coalition talks will be the accumulation of power and resources for their respective communities.

The fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, with 10 seats in the new Knesset, believes it has the potential to double its number of followers – if its Ma’ayan HaTorah school system is adequately funded.

Shas activists feel that schooling and extracurricular activities for children and their parents are the movement’s great drawing points among the broad Sephardi public.

The 9-seat NRP, whose leader, Zevulun Hammer, is poised to return to his role in the 1980s as education minister, is also determined to boost the state’s religious-educational network, which is broadly affiliated with the religious Zionist movement, the base of NRP support.

The Orthodox parties also want their own state-supported television and radio stations, arguing that most of the mass media is not suitable for their ideological and educational needs.

All three parties are confident that promoting the interests of Israel’s growing Orthodox population will help ensure that they do even better in the next elections in four years.

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