Will change come from the charedi politicians?

The government’s historical decision, announced this week, to establish an egalitarian area at the Western Wall, where all genders will be permitted to participate in liturgical practices, was orchestrated by Avihai Mandelblit, who is currently wrapping up his position as Cabinet Secretary and preparing to begin his appointment as Attorney General.

These tidings were welcome, yet unexpected; no one thought that the current government would be revolutionary when it came to state-religion issues. Obviously, years of negotiation came before the historic decision, as well as alternate plans — the Sharansky Proposal, Naftali Bennett’s 2013 proposal, and former Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser’s attempts to provide a solution.

Along with the government’s decision came the budgetary allocation: 35 million NIS to establish and open the area, 5 million NIS for initial equipping, and 2.5 million NIS for ongoing maintenance.

A quick look at Haredi news sites in order to understand why Shas and Yahadut HaTorah didn’t shoot the proposal down, shows great concern over the possibility that the Supreme Court would demand for the Wall’s Rav to allow non-Orthodox prayers at the current general areas, where Orthodox customs are enforced. Without delving into the question of who wins and who loses — if at all — in light of the new proposal, I’d like to ask and try to understand: was this a one-time window of opportunity that brought about a historic agreement, or history in the making — and history, as we all know, tends to repeat itself?

Are Haredi members of Knesset less combative when they’re comfortable members of the coalition, able to loyally represent and provide for their constituents? Could we be so bold as to believe that a government where Yesh Atid and the Haredi parties were both in the coalition, could draw up a conscription law acceptable to everyone, and spare us from the incessant anti-conscription protests and inter-Haredi campaigns vilifying Haredi soldiers?

Are the changes that the Haredi public is going through permeating upwards and influencing their political leadership? Have the leaders finally understood that there are other denominations in Judaism that have as much legitimacy to existing as they do?

Paraphrasing upon the saying “only the right wing can bring peace,” I would like to ask if “only the Haredi public can bring about major changes in the state-religion relationship,” seeing as they are the largest religious interest group in Israel who chooses to take a step back from Israeli society. Can they accomplish what Religious Zionists cannot?

All the questions and wonderings I present here that may be as a result of naïve and hopeful thinking that is in no way tied to reality, don’t rule out the possibility that the only relevant question is not so naïve: how much did the Haredis give up and what did they get in return?

While thinking about this conundrum, it was reported that the Haredi Knesset members are fighting the decision made by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to transfer the Jewish Awareness branch from the Military Rabbinate to the Human Resources Branch in the IDF; the existence of a planned meeting between the heads of Haredi political parties Arye Deri, Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman and the Minister of Defense, Moshe (Bogi) Ya’alon, was also reported.

This is the first time one can remember intervention of this magnitude being staged by Haredi Knesset members in military affairs. The question is what the premise for this involvement: have they really stopped playing the isolationist card and started caring about their country, or are they starting to call in favors that they were promised in order to agree to the Wall proposal? Is this only the first payment for what they might view as conceding?

Despite the above, I would like to stay carefully optimistic, with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in. This precedent might have caused the Haredis to change the way they viewed other Jewish denominations and their treatment thereof. Maybe this will change their approach to marriage, divorce and conversion. Only time will tell.

Miri Shalem is the CEO of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. This column is being translated from her weekly column in Makor Rishon.

About the Author
Miri Shalem is CEO of the Institute for Zionist Strategies and an activist for social change for women. Her activities in this field include organizing the national dance conference for Orthodox women and initiating a flashmob protest by Bet Shemesh women against gender segregation in the public space. She worked to establish a women's counseling center in Beit Shemesh, for which she won the Yaffa London Award in 2012. Prior to her current position, Miri was the Director of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Community Center where she was the founder and the chairperson of the city's Women's Council. Two years ago, she was one of the heads of the campaign of Eli Cohen, a mayoral candidate in Bet Shemesh. Miri is a board member at Kolech and Shaharit and a columnist for "Makor Rishon". She is also a member of President Reuven Rivlin's "Israeli hope" steering committee. She has a BA in Economics and Political Science and an MA in Gender Studies. Miri has lived in Beit Shemesh for almost twenty years and, despite the city's difficulties, reaffirms daily her choice to stay there and continue her activism. She is married and a mother of 4.