Analysis from Israel

The election campaign’s most interesting development to date has been the reports that former Shas chairman Eli Yishai is considering joining forces with Uri Ariel’s religious Zionist Tekuma party. This is interesting even if, as currently seems likely, it doesn’t happen – not because of how it might affect the election dynamics, but because of what it says about the way walls are crumbling in Haredi society.

True, Sephardi Haredim have always been less insular than their Ashkenazi counterparts. But even in Shas, jumping ship to join forces with religious Zionists would have meant certain ostracism not so long ago. And Yishai is no fringe figure; he was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s handpicked choice to lead Shas for years until Aryeh Deri returned to politics, and the party leadership, last year. Thus it’s hard to imagine him even considering such a move if he didn’t think the Haredi world had changed enough that he could do so without severing ties with it.

Nor is Yishai the only prominent Shas figure to buck the Haredi consensus recently. Shlomo Amar, whom Yosef handpicked to serve as Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi from 2003-13, successfully ran for the post of Jerusalem’s chief rabbi this summer as the candidate of the religious Zionist party Bayit Yehudi.

Clearly, thwarted personal ambition played a role in both developments: Yishai wouldn’t have considered leaving Shas had he not felt marginalized by Deri; Amar turned to Bayit Yehudi only following a feud with Shas’ powerful Yosef and Deri clans.

But the fact that both could contemplate leaving the Shas fold without fearing ostracism from Haredi society reflects the slow but deep change occurring within this society: Even if leading Haredi rabbis are still desperately pretending otherwise, ordinary Haredim increasingly understand that their community isn’t an island sufficient unto itself; it’s part of broader Israeli society, and it’s affected by what happens in that society.

Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than during the recent war in Gaza. Longtime observers of the Haredi world, both Haredi and secular, said the community’s outpouring of support for the army during the war – ranging from care packages for soldiers to “adopting” soldiers to pray for by name – was unprecedented.

Indeed, it went so far that Yated Ne’eman, the party organ of one faction of the Ashkenazi Haredi rabbinic leadership, felt compelled to run an editorial four weeks into the war urging its readers not to forget the real enemy – the Israel Defense Forces. Attempts to recruit Haredim into the IDF are “spiritual terror tunnels,” it declared, while “contact and connection between the Haredi camp and the secular is treif [non-kosher], especially at a time like this.” This reminder obviously wouldn’t have been necessary had Haredi rabbis not felt the walls were in danger of being breached.

This trend has been bolstered by the growing presence of Haredim in the workplace. Among men, the rise has been steady but modest. Among women, it’s been dramatic. According to the latest Central Bureau of Statistics data, the employment rate among Haredi women now exceeds that among Israeli women as a whole. Almost 80% of Haredi women work, an increase of nearly 30 percentage points in less than 15 years. And since the Haredi community doesn’t have enough jobs for them all, increasing numbers are working outside the Haredi community.

But Yishai’s flirtation with Ariel takes this grass-roots change up a level, into the ranks of the community’s official leadership. For Shas, like its Ashkenazi Haredi counterpart United Torah Judaism, always had two fixed principles. And the contemplated alliance with Ariel would violate both.

First, both Haredi parties shun involvement in larger political issues like, say, the peace process; they exist primarily to keep Haredi men out of the army, secular subjects out of Haredi schools and government money flowing to Haredi institutions. Thus after Yitzhak Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo Accord, for instance, Shas ventured no real opinion about the most important diplomatic question in decades; it abstained on the vote. But it did care about remaining in the coalition, with all the financial benefits that entailed, so it kept Rabin’s government from falling over the issue. Similarly, UTJ actually voted against Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, yet in exchange for 30 million shekels for its yeshivas, it personally ensured the pullout would happen by saving Sharon’s government from falling over the issue. On its priority list, the disengagement was simply much less important than money for its institutions.

Ariel’s Tekuma, however, has a very clear diplomatic policy; it opposes the peace process and territorial concessions. No list of which Tekuma is part could acquiesce in uprooting settlements in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Thus to even consider running together with Tekuma, Yishai would have to be comfortable adopting this policy in lieu of the traditional Haredi position of not having positions on diplomatic issues.

And in fact, he clearly would be comfortable with this; it’s been obvious for years that his personal views leaned right, despite his party’s official neutrality. That’s also true of many Shas voters, if you believe opinion polls. But until now, no leading Haredi figure has been willing to publicly deviate from the consensus that such issues aren’t Haredi business – that their job is to tend to their own institutions, and what happens to the country is other people’s problem.

Second, both Haredi parties have always viewed religious Zionists as inferior; indeed, their party organs often refuse to even dignify religious Zionist rabbis with the title “rabbi.” But even though Ariel represents the more “Haredi” wing of religious Zionism – meaning that Tekuma, like the Haredim, defers to its rabbis on all major political questions – the rabbis Tekuma takes orders from are religious Zionists. Thus for Yishai even to consider running with Tekuma means his rabbis would have to be willing to treat Ariel’s rabbis as equals.

Consequently, the fact that a Yishai-Ariel union could even be contemplated has a significance far beyond the personal; it represents another step on the road to fuller Haredi integration. And that’s a bit of election news we should all be happy about.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

Read more