Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin are the co-authors of the new book The War With­in: Israel’s Ultra-Ortho­dox Threat to Democ­ra­cy and the Nation. They will be blog­ging here all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing. Today, Yuval Elizur takes a look at reli­gious polit­i­cal pow­er in Israel and January’s elec­tions.

For many years the polit­i­cal pow­er of Israel’s Ortho­dox minor­i­ty spread as if it would nev­er reach a lim­it. While their num­ber of seats in Israel’s par­lia­ment, the Knes­set, remained small in rela­tion to their pow­er and also remark­ably sta­ble, the Ortho­dox rab­bis and their polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives influ­enced gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy by offer­ing to vote as a bloc to sus­tain any rul­ing coali­tion. There was a price, of course: exemp­tion from mil­i­tary ser­vice and sub­si­dies for strict reli­gious edu­ca­tion and the wel­fare of the yeshi­va stu­dents. These and their oth­er favorite projects expand­ed after each elec­tion cam­paign. No won­der that an increas­ing num­ber of Israeli intel­lec­tu­als, includ­ing a not­ed soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, warned that Israel might soon become a theo­crat­ic state not unlike Iran.

But final­ly came a push­back in the decades-long bat­tle between State and Syn­a­gogue. The results of this January’s elec­tions proved that a good part of the polit­i­cal strength of the Ortho­dox may have been a myth. It final­ly may be reced­ing toward a real­i­ty more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Israeli soci­ety, which is pre­dom­i­nant­ly sec­u­lar in prac­tice although com­mit­ted to Judaism as a religion. 

It all began in 1948 dur­ing the first Israeli gov­ern­ment when Prime Min­is­ter David Ben Guri­on excused a mere 400 Ortho­dox yeshi­va stu­dents from serv­ing in the army and ced­ed to the rab­bini­cal courts total juris­dic­tion over mar­riage and divorce of Jew­ish women in the new state. This set the pat­tern for the small reli­gious par­ties’ clever manip­u­la­tion of the rul­ing par­ties, which need­ed their par­lia­men­tary votes to hold pow­er –whether the left­ist Labor gov­ern­ments of the ear­ly days of the state or the right­ist gov­ern­ments of recent years. 

To the sur­prise of many Israelis, the elec­tions demon­strat­ed that reli­gious par­ties can be a seri­ous polit­i­cal lia­bil­i­ty and no longer an asset pur­chased by bud­gets and polit­i­cal con­ces­sions. For Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu they have become a men­ac­ing fac­tor that are lit­er­al­ly stuck in his throat as he strug­gles to form a new coali­tion. For more than a month since the Jan­u­ary 22nd elec­tions, the leader of Israel’s largest polit­i­cal par­ty, Halikud Beit­enu, has been unable to form a gov­ern­ment with­out antag­o­niz­ing the reli­gious par­ties. Accord­ing to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a gov­ern­ment. If he can’t, Pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres must declare new elections. 

Try­ing to work out deals under this sword of Damo­cles, it seems like­ly that Netanyahu will some­how suc­ceed in form­ing a gov­ern­ment with or with­out the votes of the reli­gious par­ties. Yet there is a les­son to be learned from the present deba­cle: The polit­i­cal lever­age of the reli­gious par­ties has been dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing lead­ers will try to form gov­ern­ments on their own from the nation’s hand­ful of par­ties and per­haps even reform Israel’s polit­i­cal sys­tem with­out the need to depend on the sup­port of the reli­gious par­ties by kow­tow­ing to them.

Let one thing be clear: all this polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing has very lit­tle to do with the influ­ence of reli­gion on life in Israel. That will con­tin­ue to be sub­stan­tial. Even with the reli­gious par­ties in the oppo­si­tion, Israel will be still a coun­try where most yeshi­va stu­dents will not serve in the army, the Sab­bath will be an offi­cial­ly enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rab­bini­cal mar­riages although civ­il mar­riages may final­ly be pos­si­ble through a series of inter­im arrangements.

But what­ev­er the shape – and sta­bil­i­ty – of the rul­ing coali­tion that final­ly emerges, the veto pow­er of the rab­bis has been blunt­ed and may final­ly be broken. 

Yuval Elizur is a sixth gen­er­a­tion Israeli, liv­ing in Jerusalem. The author of sev­er­al books, he is a for­mer deputy edi­tor and eco­nom­ics reporter for Israel’s largest dai­ly news­pa­per Ma’ariv, and has served as a Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Boston Globe. A vet­er­an of two wars, he was the Colum­bia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.
Yuval Elizur is a sixth gen­er­a­tion Israeli, liv­ing in Jerusalem. The author of sev­er­al books, he is a for­mer deputy edi­tor and eco­nom­ics reporter for Israel’s largest dai­ly news­pa­per Ma’ariv, and has served as Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Boston Globe. A vet­er­an of two wars, he was the Colum­bia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.