Why are Israel’s religious parties suddenly so influential?

Recent legislation solidifies the perception that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sold out the public to maintain electoral support from Israel’s religious political parties. (Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency)
Recent legislation solidifies the perception that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sold out the public to maintain electoral support from Israel’s religious political parties. (Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency)

Israel’s religious political parties worked for months to pass new religious legislation requiring convenience stores and groceries to close on the Sabbath. Few pieces of proposed legislation have caused more problems for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his secular and centrist Likud party.

What’s known as the minimarkets law (or supermarkets bill) deadlocked the Knesset for weeks. Shas, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox party for Sephardic Jews, threatened to topple the government if these bills were not immediately passed. The Knesset finally passed the bill Jan. 9 by a one-point margin (a vote of 58 to 57), with many coalition members voting with the opposition against the bill.

Israel’s religious politicians weren’t always so divisive, so why start now? My research on the political behavior of Israel’s Jewish religious leaders suggests that these extreme religious bills are symptoms of the growing internal divisiveness and increasingly empowered “extreme” factions since the death of previous leaders.

Why are these bills controversial?

The effort to prohibit more activities on the Sabbath is extremely unpopular among the Israeli public. This includes Likud voters, traditional voters who support Shas and large parts of the religious public. Opinion polls consistently show that the public wants to permit more — not fewer — activities on the Sabbath (like public transportation).

The current fiasco also comes on the heels of an earlier crisis over allowing infrastructure work on the Sabbath. On Nov. 25, Netanyahu refused to cave in to religious demands, and in response, Yaakov Litzman, head of United Torah Judaism, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox party for Ashkenazim, resigned from the government.

Why are religious parties pushing this legislation?

Just a few months ago, members of the religious parties, including Shas, were quick to point out that there has never been a better government for them. Money to yeshivot (religious schools) had reached a record high. Previous legislation passed by the secular Yesh Atid party when the religious parties were in the opposition had been overturned.

Now, these same parties were threatening early elections if these bills were not passed. What changed? Why are they breaking the religious status quo, norms that have regulated the role of religion in public life since the founding of the state? Why are Israel’s religious parties now pursuing such a hard-line position?

It’s the rabbi’s fault

I argue that these extreme religious bills are symptoms of the growing internal divisiveness affecting religious leadership in Israel. Deaths of powerful and politically moderate religious leaders such as Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Ovadia Yosef created a leadership vacuum in which more extreme factions have emerged. These new leaders oppose the old religious status quo reached by moderates at a time when the religious political parties possessed little power.

As these leaders vie for power, two main trends emerge. First, moderate religious leaders are finding it hard to continue justifying religious compromise in a context where every decision is scrutinized by the ultra-Orthodox media. Second, other religious leaders are using extreme rulings as a tool for building religious legitimacy. This includes encouraging protests in Jerusalem over the army draft and remaining relatively quiet toward attacks against soldiers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

These developments have had important repercussions for Israel’s religious parties. These parties are closely tied to their religious leadership and depend upon religious leaders for legitimacy and electoral support. Thus, their political leaders have reluctantly adopted the strict religious agenda to maintain legitimacy among the broader religious leadership.

Recent events appear to support this explanation. When Yaakov Litzman was asked why he resigned from the government over infrastructure work on the Sabbath, he said he had no choice. According to Litzman, he received a direct order by the young head Rabbi of Gur to resign from any government that allows work on the Sabbath.

During the infrastructure crisis, Shas stayed in the government despite criticism from the ultra-Orthodox world. However, they justified their position by saying they would make sure the minimarkets bill would be passed. Since the death of Yosef, the highly revered religious leader of Shas, the party has been in decline and seems increasingly vulnerable to extremist demands.

What do these shifts mean for Israeli politics?

Recent legislation solidifies the perception that Netanyahu has sold out the public to maintain electoral support from Israel’s religious political parties. Frequent crises over religion also succeed in polarizing the public over the role of religion in Israeli political life.

It also distances North American Jewry. For them, religious pluralism is a central value, especially among the reform and conservative denominations. These groups are already upset after religious parties persuaded Netanyahu to renege on a promise to allow mixed prayers for these denominations at the Western Wall.

As religious parties become more susceptible to extremist demands, it becomes difficult to build a stable coalition that relies on cooperation between secular and religious parties. Past dependence on religious parties to build coalitions ensures that religious extremists will continue to have a broad impact on Israeli politics and society.

Michael Freedman is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT.

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