The big, irreconcilable, divide in Israel

Two groups in Israel, Orthodox and secular Jews, fight each other to improve their privileges. They agree in their opposition to the Palestinians.

Israel has over one million Russian-speaking Jews with more arriving each year. Most are secular with little connection to Orthodox Judaism. Israel made a huge effort to bring them; in part to enhance Jewish demography.

Israel’s slightly larger Orthodox Jewish population is also growing. The Orthodox Sephardic Jews are represented by the Shas Party and the Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews by the United Torah Judaism party. Both participated in coalition governments and are known as strong supporters of Netanyahu. Together they represent about 20% of Israel’s Jewish population. The Orthodox parties control key government offices such as the religion and internal ministry responsible for marriage licenses as well as providing financial support and allowances to Yeshiva students and low-income families. A large percentage of Orthodox Jews do not serve in the military.

The majority of Israeli Jews are secular. Some causally observe religious laws (Mesoratim)and others (Hilonim) do not. For years the equilibrium between secular and Orthodox Jews was electorally maintained.  The large emigration from Russia in 1990 shifted the balance slightly to secular Jews.

The two million Israeli Arabs vote mostly for Arab Parties not included in most government coalitions.

5 million Palestinians live under Israeli Military law and yet are not citizens of Israel.  Even though all of them were born in a land controlled by Israel, they are excluded from voting in the Israeli election.

The new Russian immigration accelerated the divide between Orthodox and secular Jews.  Orthodox Jews believe that many new immigrants are not “Jewish” and seek to convert them as a precondition to granting them certain legal rights. Russian speaking Jews strongly resent Orthodox Jews.  The Russian Jews want nothing to do with what they consider to be outdated primitive rituals.

The Russian, secular and Orthodox Jews all agree on one thing; that Palestinians should remain outside the tent and should not share the same privileges which they have.

Avigdor Lieberman, the founder of Israel Beitenu — Israel Our Home — a party of mostly  Russian-speaking immigrants, is its main spokesperson. After his arrival in Israel in 1990, Lieberman participated in forming coalition governments with Netanyahu and served in many governmental ministries’ posts including foreign and defense. He strongly objects to what he believes to be an Orthodox grip on Israel’s civil society. Since 2019 he refused to participate in a coalition government that includes Orthodox leaders who he calls “messianic and delusional.” He objects to forming a coalition with the Israeli Arab parties calling their leadership “traitors and terrorists”

Lieberman’s anti-Orthodox campaign is resonating with the Russian speaking community as well as the Israeli secular society at large. He recently released a video in Russian mocking the Orthodox population for not serving in the military, for their high unemployment and for receiving government financial support. Many called that video Anti-Semitic.

The Orthodox side and the secular side have irreconcilable differences. Each side is refusing to change its DNA.  Orthodox Jews feel that they are keeping Israel Jewish by maintaining the traditional way of life and preserving the sanctity of the Sabbath as a day of rest. They resist serving in the army and justify their regular stipends and government support as necessary to devote their lives to Judaism.

Lieberman believes that Orthodox Jews are a cult held hostage by leaders who prevent their followers from receiving secular education thus precluding them from learning basic skills needed to obtain employment.  He cites examples of historical admired Jewish heroes such as Yehoshua Bin Nun and Yehuda Hamacabi, who fought in the army while serving God or Rashi and the Rambam who worked full time while studying the Torah.

Lieberman wants to drastically change the character of Israel.  He wants a “Liberal Jewish State” with separation between government and religion; opening businesses and public transportation on the Sabbath, secular marriages, liberal conversions and other similar changes.

The Corona pandemic added fuel to the fire. Secular Jews view the Orthodox Jews as super-spreaders of the pandemic who have ignored the government’s guidelines and instead have chosen to live in a state within a state.

This dispute between secular and Orthodox Jews touches upon fundamental issues that Israel has avoided resolving so far during its 72-year existence: “Who is Jewish” and what does “a Jewish state “means?

Israel sliced its society into various groups and ignored fundamental democratic principles of secularism and equality. It encouraged, whether by inadvertence or intentionally, privileged and nonprivileged groups now fighting each other with no end in sight.

About the Author
Josef Avesar is founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, which advocates for a mutual third government for Israelis and Palestinians. An American-Israeli of Iraqi background, he practices law in the U.S., but travels frequently to Israel and Palestine.
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