In Power With Netanyahu, Ultra-Orthodox Parties Chart Israel’s Future
JERUSALEM — To preserve his new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is making significant concessions to far-right political parties on Palestinian issues, judicial independence and police powers, but also less noticed moves on behalf of another key member of his coalition: parties that represent the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox public.
Members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community have long enjoyed benefits unavailable to many other Israeli citizens: exemption from army service for Torah students, government stipends for those choosing full-time religious study over work and separate schools that receive state funds even though their curriculums barely teach government-mandated subjects.
Those benefits have fueled resentment among large segments of the more secular public, and Israeli leaders have declared for years that their intention was to draw more of the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, into the work force and society.
But the string of promises by Mr. Netanyahu in recent weeks as he pulled together the country’s most right-wing and religiously conservative government ever suggest that Haredi leaders are pushing hard to cement the community’s special status, with broad-ranging implications for Israeli society and the economy.
Mr. Netanyahu has promised ultra-Orthodox leaders a new, separate city for Haredim where the Haredi lifestyle would guide planning. He has agreed to increase funding for Haredi seminary students and provide access to government jobs without university degrees. And he has pledged a wide range of government handouts for the Haredi school system.
“It’s very clear that the Haredi leadership that sewed up these agreements is going for strengthening the Haredi autonomy and not integration,” said Prof. Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, an independent research center.
The departing finance minister, Avigdor Liberman, a staunch critic of the Haredi parties, said the cost of all of the additional promised funding for Haredi causes would come to an estimated 20 billion shekels (about $5.7 billion) a year and constituted “an attempt to collapse the Israeli economy.”
The promises to the Haredim are a part of a range of changes that the Netanyahu-led coalition is trying to enact, including judicial overhauls that would allow Parliament to strike down Supreme Court decisions and give politicians more influence over the appointment of judges. The coalition has the numbers in Parliament to push through the measures, which it plans to soon introduce as legislation, as long as the various parties stay united, but they could also face challenges in the courts.
The new coalition government has also promised an uncompromising approach to the Palestinians, with some senior officials ultimately supporting the annexation by Israel of the occupied West Bank, territory that the Palestinians see as part of a future state for them, as well as an acceleration in Jewish settlement construction there.
What to Know About Israel’s New Government
- Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing administration in Israeli history.
- A Provocative Visit: In one of his first acts as Israel’s minister of national security, the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir toured a volatile holy site in Jerusalem, drawing a furious reaction from Palestinian leaders.
- The Far Right’s Rise: To win election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity after ethnic unrest and the subsequent inclusion of Arab lawmakers in the government.
- Arab Allies: Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have a history of making anti-Arab statements. Three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 appear unconcerned.
In one of his first acts as Israel’s minister of national security, the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir last week visited a volatile Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims, defying threats of violent repercussions and eliciting a furious reaction from Arab leaders and international condemnations.
Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, was ousted from office 18 months ago and replaced by a tenuous coalition of anti-Netanyahu forces from the right and left, but excluding the Haredi and far-right parties. After that coalition collapsed, Israel’s fifth election in under four years brought Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox bloc back to power, together winning a majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.
Ultra-Orthodox parties won the most parliamentary seats in years in the November elections, reflecting the fast growth of this largely insular community and making them linchpins of Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
To ensure the loyalty of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Mr. Netanyahu also agreed to create special budgets for public transportation in Haredi areas and to pass a law anchoring Torah study as a national value, akin to compulsory military service. Another contentious law is to be introduced to formalize the longstanding arrangement granting exemption from the draft to Torah students, further undermining the once-hallowed principle of universal conscription.
Haredi society is not homogeneous, and some more modern Haredim join the army, seek a secular higher education to equip them for the labor market and even work in high-tech.
Most Haredi women have jobs, albeit often low-paying ones. But only about half of ultra-Orthodox men go to work. Critics say that the promise to increase stipends for Torah students will act as a disincentive for them to join the labor force.
Haredi children now make up a quarter of all Jewish children in the school system and a fifth of all pupils in the country, Jewish and Arab. Most Haredi boys focus on religious studies and learn little or no math, English or science.
“When the Haredim were a small group, that was OK,” Professor Stern said. “Now it’s impossible. To allow this to go on despite the large numbers of Haredim means the country won’t be able to function.”
In order to increase at least one area of employment for Haredim — their representation in public authorities and corporations — a university degree will no longer be a criterion for some, mostly unspecified jobs. (One of the few examples cited was for art therapists, who are much in demand but in short supply in the ultra-Orthodox community.)
Diplomas like those given out to graduates of post-high school religious seminaries for women will be considered as equivalent to a university degree, as will five years of work experience. At present, the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox high school graduates do not meet the minimum university entry requirements.
Torah study will be formally recognized as higher education, and yeshiva students will get the same 50 percent discount on public transportation as university students.
Haredi politicians have long promoted a conservative social agenda that rejects the idea of civil or same-sex marriage, and opposes gay rights, as well as work and the provision of public transportation on the Sabbath. And their political involvement has alienated many Jews abroad who practice less stringent forms of Judaism.
The new concessions agreed to by Mr. Netanyahu — including proposals to restrict the Law of Return, which currently grants refuge and automatic citizenship to foreign Jews, their spouses and descendants who have at least one Jewish grandparent — are already straining Israel’s ties with many in the Jewish diaspora.
More than half of the country’s Haredim live in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, or in ultra-Orthodox suburbs of those cities, according to the annual statistical survey of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, and poverty rates are higher than among the general population.
Haredim make up some 13 percent of the population, but Haredi families have an average of seven children, more than double the number of the average Israeli family. If current trends continue, almost one in four Israelis, and about one in three Israeli Jews, are projected to be Haredi by 2050.
Another significant pledge by Mr. Netanyahu to the Haredi parties would allow rabbinical courts to arbitrate in civil matters if both sides in a dispute agree, meaning that some work disputes, for example, could be settled according to ancient religious law.
Secular Israelis have been alarmed by other Haredi demands they view as further encroachment in the public sphere, including demands for more gender-segregated beaches to comply with modesty rules.
Yitzhak Pindrus, a senior representative of the United Torah Judaism alliance, made up of two Haredi parties, sought to play down the concerns, saying that nothing had changed in the Haredi mind-set.
“Our demands are the same since 1977,” he said in an interview. “We are really old-fashioned — 2,500 years old. We don’t change our demands as a result of elections.”
“If 3 percent of the beaches were enough, we now need more if we are 20 percent of the population,” he said, referring to a practice of setting aside gender-segregated areas of beaches for Haredim. “The idea is to get closer to 6 percent,” he said, insisting that the point was not more autonomy, but to cater to the community’s larger numbers.
The separatist approach of the Haredi politicians has become a matter of debate within the Haredi community itself.
The coalition agreements for the new government “lay the foundations for the two-state solution: the state of Israel and the state of the Shtetl,” wrote Eliyahu Berkovits, a Haredi research assistant at the Israel Democracy Institute, in a recent article, using the Yiddish word for the traditional Jewish villages of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
The “Haredi enclave” has grown much larger, he wrote, and “is set to go one step further and become an autonomous state.”
In an interview, Mr. Berkovits said that Haredi politicians still acted as if they were representing a small minority that needed to protect its own interests. “The Haredi community has to understand that we are bigger,” he said, “and we are responsible for the future of Israel.”
He said he was proud of his community and praised its “amazing values.” But, he added, “it’s easier to do what you have done for past 20 years than to rethink the whole thing.”
While the numbers of modern, working Haredim are increasing, so are the hard-core and extremist factions. In recent weeks, extremists in Jerusalem vandalized an optical store because it used pictures of women wearing spectacles in its advertising and rioted over the arrest of a Haredi suspected of setting fire to a cellphone store, critically wounding a mother of 11 who was hit by a burning dumpster.
The Haredi approach over the years was one of “exile mentality,” said Israel Cohen, a political commentator for Kol Berama, a Haredi radio station, and was about remaining apart rather than trying to influence general society.
A “Haredi-Israeli culture” has now grown up, he said, and “Haredim want Israel to be more Jewish.” He added: “You’d think a Haredi becoming more Israeli would become more liberal. But no, it’s the opposite. They want Israel to become more Haredi.”