Having dealt with its lagging socialist economy, Israel must now re-balance its observant-nonobservant social compact
When I was growing up in Israel in the 1970’s, it was a wonderful place to live as a Jew, but it was also an austere and rather socialist country. Most folks didn’t have much stuff, most apartments and cars had no air conditioning, and the shock of the near catastrophic defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War was still quite palpable. There were two government owned bus companies and two large supermarket chains. Neither worked on the Sabbath, so from Friday afternoon till Sunday morning unless you owned your own vehicle, which most people did not, or lived in the near vicinity of Arab quarters in mixed-population cities like Haifa or Akko you couldn’t go anywhere or do any shopping during the only 36 hours or so that you did not have to be at work or in school.
Back then, you see, Israel had a six-day work and study week, though most offices and workplaces had early closing on Fridays so folks could make it home before the Sabbath, which begins at dusk. Sunday, needless to say, was (and still is) just another weekday. It was quite difficult for non-observant Jewish Israelis like my family, but we were all in the same boat.
Since then, Israel has become quite a rich country, with, alas, unacceptably large gaps between the haves and the have-nots. The economy has been deregulated and countless shopping chains and public transport services have opened, making both public transport and shopping options in most places in Israel nearly as ubiquitous as they are elsewhere. Many more Israelis own their own vehicles now, so the still limited public transportation options on the Sabbath are not nearly as painful as they used to be.
Today, one of the key demands from the ultra-Orthodox parties that form the backbone of the Right-Religious bloc headed by PM Netanyahu, is the institution of new restrictions on public transport and shopping on the Sabbath, trying to substantially reestablish the status quo ante, going back to the very different Israel of the 1970’s and 80’s. In that Israel there were no Ikeas or Home Depots, nor pork products emporia that would put to shame any similar store in Germany to shame. And there were no million non-observant “Russian” Jews.
The stalemate in Israeli politics that we have been experiencing ever since the leader of the “Russians” Avigdor Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition in April of this year is centered entirely on the question of the so-called “religious compulsion”; a set of laws and regulations like the ban on public transport that seek to force Jewish religious observance even on those Jewish Israelis who choose not to lead religiously observant lives. I say “Jewish”, because these laws do not apply and have never applied to the cities, towns, and villages of the minority Arab population.
Since about two thirds of the Israeli Jewish population is non-observant, one may very well inquire how these religious compulsory laws ever came into existence. The answer to that question is key to understanding today’s political situation: they came into existence because the religious parties have extorted them from both the left-center Labor (now Blue and White) and the right-center Likud as the price for joining them as coalition partners and allowing them to form governments.
As of today, these religious parties still have a firm hold on the Likud, but with the “Russian” rebellion, this is insufficient for a right-religious coalition government. The center-left Blue and White has in it a hard anti-religious element headed up by Yair Lapid, an element that is quite unlikely to acquiesce to any laws mandating religious observance in the public square. This makes clinging to the Likud the religious parties’ only option and in that sense their bargaining power is already much diminished.
The impasse in Israeli politics is real. The anger against religious compulsion by non-observant Israelis whose kids will not be able to catch a bus to the beach on their only day of rest and who will see their favorite stores close on the one day that they can do some shopping is also real. On the other hand, Israel has prospered beyond anyone’s belief under the truly Zionist and hence pragmatic leadership of PM Netanyahu and making a radical change at the top in these highly volatile times seems less than prudent to say the least.
Had Netanyahu had any trust in his opponent Benny Gantz, had the latter made him a real good-faith offer of joining forces without the right and religious parties, the two of them could have led the country on to a new path of prosperity, security, and religious tolerance for all Israelis. Unfortunately, these conditions do not exist. Both leaders are held back by their own more radical elements, the mutual mistrust is too deep, and the egos involved are way too massive.
Now Benny Gantz has four weeks to form the government. Should he fail, any member of the Knesset can try to do the same for three more weeks and if none succeed, a new, third in a row election will be called for early March. While Netanyahu’s legal problems, problems that are the result of what could rightly be called a political witch hunt by his opponents, are likely to be resolved by that time one way or another, there is no guarantee that the new election results will make forming a new governing coalition any easier.
Israel has gone through a deregulation of its economy, an absorption of a massive wave of repatriates from the ex-Soviet sphere, and through the resulting economic miracle. Now it has to redefine its social compact between the rich and poor and, crucially, the observant and non-observant segments of its population. It may take three or more election cycles to do that, but done it must be. If the past is any guide, the necessary changes will come slowly, painfully, with much protestation and lamentation, with many harsh words and predictions of the fall of the Third Temple on both sides, but it will come and when it does, Israel will emerge stronger and at once magically more pluralistic and more Jewish. Everything, after all, is possible in Zion.
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