Aftermath of the failed Israeli election shows that the outcome failed to properly reflect the existing balance between the observant and non-observant segments of the population.
Many of my readers may not know this, but Judaism has its own Sharia. It is called the “Halachah”, the Way, and it sets forth in minute detail how Jews must live their lives, from what to eat to how, when, and with whom to have sexual relations. Matters in Halachic dispute are resolved by rabbinical courts or, in some cases, by rabbis who lead certain religious communities and whose followers choose to abide by their rulings.
In Israel, halachah applies, as a matter of civil law, only to Jews and only on certain matters, primarily family law, such as marriages and divorces, though also to the dietary laws in places that choose or must abide by them. More broadly, halachah infuses every aspect of Israeli life from national holidays, which coincide with days on which doing work is prohibited by the halachah, to many limitations of public transport and commerce.
The attitudes that Israeli Jews have towards the halachah range from contempt, to absolute adherence, to going even further than absolute adherence on the off chance that certain aspects of settled law were decided too leniently all these centuries or millennia ago. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, according to some polling at least two thirds of them, do not wish to live in a state that is governed by the halachah as state law. Even Israelis who consider themselves “traditional” and who do not consume pork and other overtly non-kosher foods want to be free to drive with the kids to the beach on Saturday mornings and then have a meaty shawarma lunch without worrying whether six hours have passed since they fed the kids dairy ice cream (halachah prohibits the simultaneous consumption of meat and dairy).
Certain leaks from the failed coalition negotiations and certain incendiary quotes from religious politicians after the dissolution of the Knesset seem to indicate that the results of the recent election have taken one step too far in the direction of the halachah at the expense of civil liberties, a step that the secular Israel Beitenu party headed by Avigdor Lieberman was not willing to accept.
For example, it has been disclosed that as part of the concessions made by PM Netanyahu to his would be coalition partners on the ultra-Orthodox side, he has agreed to remove regulation that prohibited the separation between men and women in public spaces. This is an important topic because Israel has many communities with significant presence and sometimes a majority of ultra-Orthodox citizens. These citizens often take it upon themselves to enforce, without authority, the halachic rules regarding the separation of the sexes. to accomplish this, they place placards directing men and women to separate sidewalks and install similar devices in local buses and other means of public transport. Having posted the placards, these citizens then take it upon themselves to police compliance, often insulting their less observant neighbors, particularly women.
After complaints by regular citizens, Israeli government had made it illegal for the ultra-Orthodox to engage in these activities since they clearly violate the equal rights that are guaranteed to all Israelis under several foundational laws duly passed by the Knesset. Netanyahu’s concession on this subject, if true, does not bode well for his commitment to the rule of law in Israel and underlines his total dependence on the ultra-orthodox parties in order to form a ruling coalition.
Yoel Smotrich, the leader of the Union of the Right party, a conglomerate party representing the Zionist stream in Orthodox Judaism, recently remarked that Israel has to “act like it did in the time of Kings David and Solomon”, a remark he then walked back, but which played right into the fears of the majority of Israelis who would much prefer that Israel acts as a modern Western-style republic than an iron age monarchy.
Netanyahu, ever the master politician, seems to have taken notice. Taking time off from his incessant onslaught on the angel of destruction of his putative fifth government, Avigdor Lieberman, the Prime Minister assured the public that “Israel will never be a halachic state” and sent out his surrogates to let everyone know that no matter how much Smotrich may want it, he will never become the Minister of Justice.
The bottom line is that most Israelis want a government that respects the fact that Israel is a Jewish state while ensuring that it is also a vibrant democracy in which all citizens are equal before the law. Most Israelis want a realpolitik attitude towards the management of the Arab-Israeli conflict, rejecting the Oslo-style Hail Mary attempts at peace making via wishful thinkings. What Israelis do not want is anyone, regardless of their credentials, telling them how and to what degree they should observe Jewish customs, traditions, or laws. For most of us, these are highly personal matters that are best left to us and our families to resolve. We can only hope that the painful lesson of a wasted general election will be enough to bring our politicians to their senses and come September offer the Israeli public a way to make their voices heard, a way that would lead to a stable governing coalition that represents the majority views of the Israeli public.
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