Time to cheer the ousting of the theocrats

SO if I’m honest, I do complain a lot about the government. I’m not alone of course. Most of us contributing op-eds about Israeli politics are more likely to be spurred to write by anger, frustration or disappointment than by contentment and satisfaction with the status quo. But hey, we’re a Jewish and democratic state; and both the Jewish tradition and the values of democracy call for robust and honest critique of those in power.

Now, I’m pretty sure our new government will provide me with plenty of material in the months ahead but, before that happens, I want to celebrate something that is, to my mind, undeniably positive about the incoming coalition – no Charedi parties.

And please note, I said “no Charedi parties” not “no Charedim”. Despite the continued attacks on Messrs. Lapid and Bennett for allegedly “boycotting an entire population”, let’s be clear: they did no such thing. Yair Lapid said from the outset that he would not sit in a government that did not take seriously the plan that he ran the election on, which would see the vast majority of Charedim participate in military or national service just like the rest of the Jewish population. Shas and United Torah Judaism were not willing to sign up to his plan (or any compromise close to it) so he told Bibi that he would not sit in a government with the two Charedi parties.

This is not boycotting Charedim. That the representatives of the Charedim in the Knesset are Shas and UTJ is, first and foremost, a tragedy for the Charedim. Despite Aryeh Deri’s sore loser-grumble that this is “a government whose leaders do not know the meaning of hardship”, the primary causes for the poverty of the Charedi community are the very policies advocated and, until now, protected from any reform by Shas and UTJ. Particularly objectionable is their insistence on a separate Charedi school curriculum, which does not teach math, science or English, thereby producing generation upon generation of largely unemployable young men. Let’s not forget also that these schools are part-funded by the rest of us through our taxes. Changing this reality, which punishes Charedim and everyone else, should be top of the agenda of new Education Minister Shai Piron.

Of course my joy at seeing Shas and UTJ in the opposition is not only a response to their hypocrisy. As someone who believes that Israel must always be part of the liberal, democratic world – and that modern Zionism was a progressive ideology from its inception – I have no time for political parties that are run as mini-theocracies. That neither Charedi party will allow a woman to run on their list is disgraceful but so unsurprising that it barely registers when we remind ourselves of the fact. In the election campaign Shas descended to a new low of political mudslinging by attacking the size of Naftali Bennett’s kippa and referring to his Jewish Home party as “the Home for Goyim”. Meanwhile their now infamous election advert depicting an obviously Russian bride, receiving a conversion by fax under the chuppa, was decried by many as racist. At best it revealed the distorted, two-dimensional world that Shas inhabits, where anything other than the Charedi interpretation of Judaism is a cheap imitation designed to “destroy Torah”.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, is one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his, and many other, generations. However, he is also responsible for some of the most odious statements about non-Jews and – of course! – non-Orthodox Jews, to be uttered by an Israeli public figure

The ideal however, is not Charedi parties that are more amenable to liberal values. Putting aside how unrealistic that scenario is for the foreseeable future, a more mature Israeli democracy simply should not have parties defined solely by the ‘sector’ they represent.  Let Charedim, like the rest of us, decide to vote for a party based on the myriad factors that make up our own personal beliefs and ideologies. Why should we assume that this population, currently represented by just two parties, all think alike on issues of taxation, foreign policy or the Palestinian question?

The hope is that we will reach a point where Charedim – and Israeli Arabs for that matter – will not feel the need to vote for sectoral parties “to protect their interests”. (Incidentally, the Arab parties likewise do not do their constituency many favors, but that’s another story…)

I am then, cautiously optimistic that this new government, thanks primarily to the reforming zeal of Yesh Atid, will take long-needed steps not just on the Charedi issue, but also on other crucial matters like housing and the electoral system. I know however that, before long, other questions will need to be answered: What happens to Lapid and Bennet’s alliance when the new finance minister wants to implement his pre-election plan of cutting funding to settlements? How much authority will Tzipi Livni really wield in pursuing peace with the Palestinians? Will Benjamin Netanyahu, at the third time of asking, finally make the transition from ego-driven politician to game-changing statesman?

But you’ll forgive me for taking just a little more time to enjoy the fact that Shas and UTJ – neither of them Zionist, both ambivalent about democracy – are no longer governing the State of Israel.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.