Time indeed to limit Haredi ‘political sway’!

Rabbi Kariv passing Torah scroll to Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan 5782 (courtesy: Women of the Wall)
Rabbi Kariv passing Torah scroll to Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan 5782 (courtesy: Women of the Wall)

The Torah is hailed by its followers as “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace”, but the conduct of the ultra-Orthodox politicians is anything but that. What characterizes their rhetoric and actions is an obsession with the non-Orthodox denominations in particular and with freedom of religion and Jewish pluralism in general.

These issues are of great importance not only within Israel but also to Diaspora Jewry, especially to its leadership, which is involved in supporting and partnering with the State of Israel. This goes to the core of understanding the unique and strained relationship between Haredim and non-Haredim in Israel, as well religion & state in general. Not understanding the extent of this clash on diaspora Jewry’s part, results in a skewed perspective. An accurate perspective is necessary for developing strategic policies to enhance the Israel-diaspora partnership and support Israel as a Jewish & democratic state.

Haredi political wrath is channeled primarily in two directions:

  1. Against the current government coalition, which is referred to using strong pejoratives such as ‘wicked government’ and ‘apostasy government’, not the least of which is ‘Reform Government’, and
  2. Against ‘the Reformers’, which is used as an invective and as a loose label for all non-Orthodox Jews. It has come to be used with increasing frequency against Modern Orthodoxy as well.

A common Pavlovian response to any strong criticism of Haredi practices and political excesses is to label it antisemitic. So, when PM Bennett recently held that he is committed to preserving Israel’s Jewish character and also spoke of the need to “limit the Haredi parties’ political sway,” the immediate reaction of UTJ MK Rabbi Porush (Former Deputy Minister of Education) was to describe those remarks as antisemitic. Porush argued in a radio interview that Bennett’s words are analogous to having Chancellor Angela Merkel appeal to the German public to limit Jewish clout in Germany.

So too was the reaction of the Shas party, whose official organ’s [Ha’Derech] cover page headline following the Prime Minister’s speech read: “Shock caused by Bennett’s antisemitic pronouncement: ‘limit Haredi influence’”

Needless to say, both MK Porush’s and Shas’s public wrath demonstrate a great deal of audacity to make this comparison, given the events that led to the Holocaust and modern expressions of antisemitic venom. Criticism of the Haredi ‘political sway’ is a common and valid reaction by the majority of Israelis to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political blackmail, which has resulted in infringements on civil rights in Israel [such as the right to marriage], freedom of religion [such as preventing public transportation on Saturdays and blocking the Women of the Wall worship], the State economy [the refusal of over a 100,000 ultra-Orthodox men to enter the labor market and their demand that the public coffers fund them for as long as they wish to remain in their yeshivot, as well as their refusal to teach core curricular studies in their boys schools. Leading economists project that this reality, if not halted, will bring Israel to bankruptcy, and Israel’s security [evasion of sharing the burden of military service by tens of thousands].

It’s not just Prime Minister Bennett, but also some 60% of the adult Jewish public that have consistently responded to all surveys conducted in recent years that they oppose the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. At the very least – the public opposes perpetuating the government’s surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ funding demands and coercive religion and state policies.

Source: 2021 Hiddush Israel Religion and State Index

MK Rabbi Porush chose to disrupt a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting by loudly reciting Psalms and refusing to leave the room, in protest of committee chairman MK Rabbi Kariv’s (a Reform rabbi) having used his parliamentary immunity to pass a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall earlier that day because the Kotel Rabbi prevents them from reading from a Torah scroll during their monthly service. MK Kariv was forced to recess the committee meeting while parliamentary guards worked to remove United Torah Judaism’s Meir Porush from the room.

In anticipation of the next Rosh Hodesh Service of the Women of the Wall, posters were put up on billboards throughout Jerusalem and beyond, calling on the public to ‘Help us Fight the Reform Takeover of the Kotel’. MK Rabbi Litzman, head of Agudath Israel party and former Minister of Housing, announced in an interview that “If Gilad Kariv thinks he will use violence, we will respond with violence – We will block him with our bodies; we won’t let him enter the Western Wall [Plaza] with a Torah scroll.” So did MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, head of the United Torah Judaism faction.

One cannot avoid seeing the hypocrisy in the Haredi politicians’ strident reaction to the notion of curtailing their political clout, especially as they choose to express their protest borrowing from the vocabulary of antisemitism. Often in the same breath, they demonize Reform Judaism and demand that it be barred from Israel, claiming that the proper response would have been to imprison MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv for assisting the Women of the Wall in realizing their freedom of worship.

They extorted the nullification of the ‘Kotel compromise’, which was entered into by the government, the non-Orthodox movements, and the Women of the Wall, explaining that they would not allow any legitimization of these “heretical and destructive” movements. Clearly, invoking democratic principles and the need to respect their religious choices and their segment in the Jewish population is merely a cover for an intrinsically anti-democratic, anti-pluralistic position. They invoke these core values both in Israel and elsewhere when their religious freedom is infringed upon, such as their recent legal and political battles over Kosher slaughter in Europe and synagogue prayer services in New York during the pandemic. But in truth, ultra-Orthodox interests and their own religious outlook are the only ones they consider deserving of protection, while alternative religious views and practices merit banishment.

Given the Haredi politicians’ conduct and their blocking of core civil liberties and national interests – it’s no surprise that the majority of Israeli Jews prefers that the Government Coalition not include them, or, at the very least, not cede to their budgetary and policy demands! In other words, “limit their political sway!”

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Regev is one of Israel’s most prominent advocates for religious freedom. He currently serves as president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.
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