Israel's ultra-Orthodox poised for political comeback

Published May 7, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The formation of Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition government has cleared the way for Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties to return to power after two years in the opposition.

This religious resurgence could have deep implications as the ultra-Orthodox seek to reinstate a system of subsidies and preferential treatment that have long angered Israel's secular majority, potentially setting the stage for a new round of the culture wars that have repeatedly plagued the country.

Under Israel's system of proportional representation, the ultra-Orthodox long have enjoyed power and influence far beyond their numbers by providing a string of prime ministers the needed votes to guarantee a majority in parliament.

As a result, they have won automatic exemptions from compulsory military service and large budgets for a separate school system focusing heavily on religious studies while largely not teaching math, English and computer literacy. This system has bred resentment among secular Israelis, who accuse the ultra-Orthodox of shirking their national responsibilities and posing a burden on the economy.

Led by Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party, the outgoing government passed landmark legislation that aimed to gradually incorporate the ultra-Orthodox into the military and boosted their employment figures. Now, with Lapid in the opposition, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties return to government determined to roll back on those measures.

In the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu struck questionable deals with the parties that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The quick reversal of policies he previously promoted has drawn a strong rebuke — even from some supporters.

The biggest fallout was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's dramatic refusal to join the government. Lieberman said he couldn't live with concessions on the military draft and continuing generous funding for the ultra-Orthodox education system.

The move leaves Netanyahu with a slim 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, making him even more dependent on his ultra-Orthodox allies.

Lapid charged Netanyahu with agreeing to a "clearance sale" of the country for the sake of politics.

"Instead of using taxpayer money for security, education, health and welfare, he is using that money for political bribery," he said. "The prime minister is selling the country and presenting us all with the bill."

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to skip compulsory military service to pursue their religious studies. Older men often avoid the workforce and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time. Due to its high birthrates and unemployment, the ultra-Orthodox community is among the poorest in Israel.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. They say outside forces are putting their ancient brand of Judaism under siege and that integration into the secular military and workforce will undermine their lifestyle.

But, quietly, there have been changes. A younger generation of ultra-Orthodox is joining the military and the workforce in growing numbers, particularly in the high-tech sector. Lapid's reforms helped give this trend added momentum.

Shahar Ilan, the vice president of research and information at the religious equality group Hiddush, said ultra-Orthodox leaders didn't have their constituency's best interests in mind in trying to turn back the clock.

"The more money they funnel to religious seminaries, the less incentive there is to go out and work," he said. "All the top economists agree that unless a large number of ultra-Orthodox men find work, the Israeli economy will face a major crisis."

He said the new coalition agreements threaten to stunt a recent rise in employment among the ultra-Orthodox. About 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox women and 45 percent of the men hold jobs — an impressive increase but still far below the national average.

An even greater concern is oversight over their independent school system. Since the religious tend to have large families, more than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox and the community is the fastest growing in the country.

Government statistics project that if these trends continue, the ultra-Orthodox could make up 15 percent of the country's population by 2025.

According to the initial coalition agreements, the ultra-Orthodox parties will control the health, economy and religious services ministries, as well as powerful parliamentary appropriations committees. The agreement with United Torah Judaism also includes clauses that will allow them to alter draft quotas.

Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker who is slated to become head of the powerful Finance Committee, said his community was actually the most discriminated against in Israel and their presence in the government was damage control against unfair persecution.

"We've been through two very difficult years, not just the ultra-Orthodox but the entire country," he told the religious Kol Barama radio station. "I'm glad that I am coming back to a position where I will be able to do good for the entire people of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox community in particular."


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