Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg
Israeli. Lives in Toronto. Racism Researcher. Activist. Believes in Peace and Justice Everywhere.

A Trap Set for Israel’s Center-Left

There is a tendency among secular Israelis to scapegoat the ultra-Orthodox. The popular argument goes that while enjoying all the rights that come with citizenship, the ultra-Orthodox are free of civic duties and nevertheless exert crucial influence on society; they do not work and are exempt from the mandatory military service imposed on Jewish Israelis. However, they control religious institutions, impact the secular sector’s freedom, and have been a deciding element in the assembling of almost all previous Israeli governments.

However, this no longer holds true. The last decade has seen a shift in the power dynamics inside Israeli society and its government.

A few months ago, after Avigdor Lieberman’s move resulted in Binyamin Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a new coalition. Secular liberals, including Aluf Benn and Raviv Drucker, were deeply impressed. It was not the fact that Lieberman’s had challenged Binyamin Netanyahu, but rather that he had stood up to the ultra-Orthodox.

Lieberman is a politician with no actual impact on his name. He has earned his repute by the sheer volume of his tone and sustained efforts to stoke the flame of mass racism and violence. I find it hard to be impressed by this rallying of opposition to the ultra-Orthodox, which strikes me as yet another spin. The ultra-Orthodox, after all, no longer the powerful party in the Israeli government.

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I believe that perpetuating this false notion of the ultra-Orthodox electoral sway allows other forces, subtle yet destructive, to interfere with the Israeli secular’s march towards advanced, egalitarian, open-minded society.

Over the last decade, we have been witnessing a shift of power in the Israeli public sphere, with subtler yet broader changes in what used to be considered the secular Israeli institutions. Core formative institutions for the collective Israeli consciousness, like the military, the judicial system, or the education system, have been consequently affected. These significant gradual changes will have a far more lasting effect on the future face of the Israeli state than the ultra-Orthodox draft law.

In the last few years, religious Zionists have been serving as ministers of education. During Naftali Bennett tenure in the office (2015-2019), a new civics textbook was introduced, which, judging by its contents, could potentially represent an informal introduction to the controversial Nation-State Bill. Among other things, the new textbook suggests that the Jews have an absolute, exclusive claim to the Land of Israel, while constantly questioning the Palestinian nationality.

The same minister was responsible for the removal from the school curriculum of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel All the Rivers, on the grounds that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten their separate identities.” Bennett’s tenure was also marked by a string of lesser, yet significant, incidents: A school principle, for example, was reprimanded after inviting a representative of the New Israel Fund to give a talk to his students.

And it is getting worse. Upon entering office last month, the new minister of education, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, stated in an interview that Torah studies must take up more of the school curriculum (unlike mathematics or English) in order to promote the inner strength of our children through awareness of their Jewish roots. Peretz further expressed his support for conversion therapy for homosexuals (which he has since withdrawn) and his aspirations of enforcing Israeli sovereignty in the occupied territories at large, without affording their Palestinian residents the vote.

Examples abound of actions aiming to transform the core values in the domains of justice, education, media, and culture by national right-wing elements outside the ultra-Orthodox parties. Jewish ethnicity has always enjoyed prominence in the Israeli state institutions, but now the Jewish national-religious lot seem to be taking over.

The rise of overt racism, women’s exclusion from the public sphere, the legislative standstill on LGBTQ rights, the racist bills in the parliament, and other basic human rights issues in Israel can all be traced back to the general public’s obliviousness to the main problem. We have been driven into a flight of regrouping into our sub-identities (the main identity being Jewish, with the sub-identity being woman, gay, secular, etc.), when we should be coming together as an egalitarian society and fight for equal rights for all, in a democratic state.

The ultra-Orthodox are indeed a burden on the Israeli economy and used to be the obstacle facing the left and its progressive values ​​in the government. However, until recently, they had no real decisive influence on the Israeli public in its effort to catch up with the west. Nevertheless, they remain secular society’s scapegoats, shouldering the blame and anger for the shortage of government funding for social services, wage erosions etc. The opposition politicians as Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman regularly stoking anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiments in order to gain more support and votes from the secular public instead of facing the real economic burden on the Israeli society.

For several years now, Adva Center has been releasing reports that emphasize the attending costs of the occupation. The last two reports demonstrate how the settlement project affects the standards of living among many groups of Israel’s Jewish population. The authors claim that the Palestinian resistance to the occupation means political-security instability, which forces Israel to adopt a cautious financial policy, at the expense of Israeli citizens within the Green Line. In order to finance the ongoing occupation, the government cuts funding for social services, which in turn forces citizens to pay for services once provided by the welfare state. Thus, the lack of government funding widens inequality in the Israeli society, which already ranks among the highest in the west in this respect.

The general public’s opposition to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that may bring an end to the occupation is part of what drives secular Jewish Israelis to support national religious Zionist parties and allows the latter to gain power in the government and man key positions in Israeli institutions. Their acts compromise the left’s influence and its progressive values.

Avigdor Lieberman has indeed shaped the conversation surrounding the election and turned religious-secular relations into its pivot. But by doing so, not only has he widened the rift and increased prejudice and hate between these two groups, but he has also undermined Netanyahu, in a brilliant maneuver that fooled many centrist and leftist Israelis who wish to end the human rights violations in the occupied territories. More importantly for his own sake, Lieberman may have undermined the ultra-Orthodox parties, but he has boosted the religious Zionists parties, with their sustained, methodical effort to make Israel a Jewish, rather than democratic, state.

About the Author
Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg is an academic researcher, group facilitator and an activist. She is a New Israel Fund fellow. Currently living in Canada, after spending most of her life in Israel. She has a post-doctorate from the University of Toronto, and Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on race relations in Israel and antisemitism in North-America. She has worked as a social worker in Israel and facilitated intercultural and anti-racism groups.
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