#religion | The haredi parties’ impact on Israel’s religious life under Netanyahu

On June 25, 2017, the politics of Judaism in the Jewish state went into meltdown when Israel’s government made two momentous decisions.

First the cabinet decided to indefinitely suspend the Western Wall agreement for egalitarian prayer access, a deal that was touted as a new dawn for religious pluralism in Israel.

Second, the cabinet approved draft legislation that would have granted the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversion, and would have revoked all legal rights previously obtained through the High Court of Justice for converts who converted through independent Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Both decisions were pushed through with the raw political power of Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the pressure they managed to apply to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bow to their demands as they openly displayed their desire to maintain a grip on religious life in the Jewish state.

Those were just two examples of the influence haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties have wielded over affairs of religion and state during Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, and since the formation of the 34th government, which was in power from May 2015 until May 2020, in particular.

On civil marriage and conversion, commerce and public transportation on Shabbat, and even who is permitted to use state owned mikvaot, Shas and UTJ sought to either further entrench their control over religious life in Israel, or at the bare minimum perpetuate the 73-year-old status quo on religion and state affairs.

This desire to preserve control over the status quo, which originally pertained to Shabbat, kashrut, education, and personal status issues such as marriage and conversion but has since extended to other spheres, is demonstrated by the conditions demanded by Shas and UTJ in their coalition agreements.

First, every coalition agreement these parties have ever signed with Netanyahu has included a standard clause giving them veto power over status-quo issues, license that was frequently extended to the Western Wall, divorce recalcitrance and mikveh access.

And the coalition agreements have also been used to advance specific agendas on religious life, for example the 2015 agreement between UTJ and Likud that stated that a government resolution decentralizing control over Jewish conversions from the Chief Rabbinate to municipal chief rabbis must be repealed. And it was.

During the course of the 34th and 35th governments, Shas and UTJ worked hard to avert the erosion of the status quo and to extend Orthodox control over religious life.

In July 2016, the Knesset passed UTJ-sponsored legislation to allow local rabbinates to ban the Reform and Conservative movements from using state-run mikvaot for their conversion ceremonies.

In January 2018, the Knesset approved the so called mini-markets law at the behest of the haredi parties that gave interior minister Arye Deri the right to veto municipal bylaws increasing commercial activity on Shabbat.

Deri subsequently used this legislation to stymie bylaws passed by Modi’in, Holon, Givatayim and Herzliya, which would have allowed more businesses to open on Shabbat.

And last year, the Interior Ministry under Deri’s control thwarted efforts to allow civil marriage in Israel in a restricted format during the corona crisis, a move sought because civil marriage abroad was impossible because of international travel restrictions.

Indeed, at the beginning of this year, when some Israeli couples married in online civil ceremonies through the US state of Utah as a substitute to marrying abroad, Deri ordered the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry to suspend recognition of such marriages until the matter could be “thoroughly examined.”

And during the course of both the 34th and 35th governments, UTJ and Shas vetoed and voted down each and every piece of legislation allowing civil marriage in Israel, and public transportation on Shabbat.

Reversing the 2014 government move to decentralize the conversion system was a big victory for UTJ and Shas, one they had promised their voters.

But they did suffer two severe setbacks on conversion issues in court rulings in 2016 and in March that they were unable to reverse because of opposition by Yisrael Beytenu during the 34th government, and of Blue and White in the outgoing 35th government.

UTJ’s leadership vowed to circumvent the 2021 ruling that granted Reform and Conservative converts in Israel the right to citizenship, the same case that Shas had sought to preemptively circumvent in 2017 and which caused the crisis with Diaspora Jewry.

In fact, UTJ made the passage of legislation that would annul that right a condition for joining a new government after the March election, although with their pending exclusion from the putative new coalition, that goal would appear to be on hold for now.

Over the last six years, Shas and UTJ have worked diligently to buttress the status quo, maintain their control over the levers of religious authority and preserve the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.

“We feel that we are the gatekeepers,” said UTJ MK Yaakov Asher. “We are protecting the identity of this state. The country can’t be Jewish if there aren’t any Jewish features of the state.”

But public opinion has shifted dramatically since the status-quo agreement between David Ben-Gurion and Agudat Yisrael were signed in 1947.

Religious pluralism, be it at the Western Wall or anywhere else, has the support of two-thirds of Israelis, with even lager majorities for civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat, and other reforms to religious life in Israel.

The major parties of the new government, which is expected to be formed on Sunday, have indicated that they are now ready to move forward in making some of these changes, specifically on conversion, legislative reform to the kashrut supervision market, and other issues.

The path to these reforms will not be easy, with parties such as Yamina and New Hope looking over their shoulders to the haredi parties in fear of upsetting them too greatly and endangering possible political cooperation in the future, as happened in the 33rd government when reforms proposed by Yesh Atid foundered for that reason.

But with Shas and UTJ in opposition for the time being, the prospects for amending, at least in part, the decades old status quo on religion and state might be higher than they have been for many years.

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