News / Middle East

Ultra-Orthodox Parties in Tight Spot After Israel Election

An ultra-Orthodox Jew stands near Shas campaign banners that depict party leader Aryeh Deri (top) and near pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira during an annual pilgrimage to the Rabbi's gravesite in the southern town of Netivot, Israel, Jan. 14, 2013.An ultra-Orthodox Jew stands near Shas campaign banners that depict party leader Aryeh Deri (top) and near pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira during an annual pilgrimage to the Rabbi's gravesite in the southern town of Netivot, Israel, Jan. 14, 2013.
x
An ultra-Orthodox Jew stands near Shas campaign banners that depict party leader Aryeh Deri (top) and near pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira during an annual pilgrimage to the Rabbi's gravesite in the southern town of Netivot, Israel, Jan. 14, 2013.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew stands near Shas campaign banners that depict party leader Aryeh Deri (top) and near pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira during an annual pilgrimage to the Rabbi's gravesite in the southern town of Netivot, Israel, Jan. 14, 2013.
Reuters
Powerful political players for years, Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties must now reckon with a new force ushered in by voters bent on stripping them of perks they have relied on for decades.

Centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party came a surprise second in Tuesday's parliamentary election, usurping ultra-Orthodox groups Shas and United Torah Judaism from their long-standing role of kingmakers in coalition negotiations.

Voted in by a frustrated middle-class, Yesh Atid promised to enact an "equal sharing of the burden" -- code for curtailing both welfare benefits given to ultra-Orthodox families and an exemption from military service offered to their menfolk.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist Likud-Beitenu party led the field in the election, but he lost a quarter of his parliamentary seats in the process, making it almost impossible for him to ignore the clamour of the centre.

"There is a famous joke we [tell] in Israel," outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN in an interview.

"One third of the country wakes up to work, one third is paying taxes, and one third is serving in the [army] reserves. Unfortunately it is the same one third. This one third told the government yesterday 'That is it,''' he said.

Aryeh Deri (C), leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attends an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, in the southern town of Netivot, Jan. 14, 2013.Aryeh Deri (C), leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attends an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, in the southern town of Netivot, Jan. 14, 2013.
x
Aryeh Deri (C), leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attends an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, in the southern town of Netivot, Jan. 14, 2013.
Aryeh Deri (C), leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attends an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, in the southern town of Netivot, Jan. 14, 2013.
The ultra-Orthodox, whose men stand out due to their old-fashioned beards, black hats and long coats, make up roughly 10 percent of the Israeli population. Known as the Haredim, Hebrew for 'those who tremble before God', they lead a pious way of life. Most are poor, shy away from mainstream secular culture and keep to their own towns and neighborhoods.

More than half of Haredi men do not work, choosing to devote themselves to a lifetime study of the main Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud, for which many receive state stipends.

Successive coalition governments have had to rely for survival on the ultra-Orthodox parties, which in turn exacted state benefits to safeguard their distinctive lifestyle.

"They focus on very specific issues and centre all their power on them, but they give complete freedom on other matters. That is why they are such convenient coalition partners," said political scientist Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University.

The ultra-Orthodox bloc helped bring stability to Netanyahu's last government and he would surely like them back on board this time, so long as he can find a compromise deal.

High Fertility

Ironically, Tuesday's election saw the ultra-Orthodox parties win 18 seats, one more than in 2009 -- a reflection of their growing demographic weight with a fertility rate that is some three times higher than that of other Israeli Jews.

Despite this gain, Ofer Kenig, a political scientist from The Israel Democracy Institute, said the ultra-Orthodox parties had a much reduced bargaining position than before.

"There is a growing recognition among the Haredim too that the current situation cannot continue for much longer," Kenig said, referring to the Haredi exemptions from military service.

However, the head of the Haredi party United Torah Judaism, Israel Eichler, stoutly defended their privileges on Thursday, telling Israel Radio that his people had a sacred task, as essential to Israel as that carried out by the army.

"The burden is to maintain a Jewish state in Israel, which starts and ends with studying the Torah. There is a need for an army here, but if there is no Torah then there is no need for a state and therefore no need for the military," he said.

Eli Yishai, a leader of Shas and the outgoing interior minister, hinted that a compromise could be found.

"If the prime minister wants a coalition with Shas ... it will be difficult but doable. If we all want it, we can sit together, be more flexible and set up a government," he said.

Unconstitutional

Resentment towards the Haredim has been building for years, as they have taken over neighbourhoods and imposed their rule, with zealots separating the sexes in buses, and harassing women and girls if they stray from their strict clothing etiquette.

Bowing under the high cost of living, Israeli taxpayers have accused the ultra-Orthodox of sponging off the state. Benefits are often not specifically defined for any one group in the law, but conveniently, eligibility seems to fit the Haredi.

Discounts on municipal taxes, for instance, can be determined by household income and family size. The Haredi have an average of some eight children per family and because of their low employment rates, have very low income.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention is the fact that most ultra-Orthodox men can skip obligatory military service because of their religious studies.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that this was unconstitutional and ordered a reform. Senior Yesh Atid officials say curtailing the exemptions must be a priority for the new coalition.

Making a virtue of necessity, Netanyahu has now embraced the language of the center, saying on Wednesday that it was clear that voters wanted "increasing equality in [bearing] the burden," adding that this would be one of his three priorities.

Rahat said Netanyahu's statement could well have been a bargaining move to alarm the ultra-Orthodox parties and lower their price for joining the coalition.

However, he cautioned the secular centrists against raising their expectations. Highly motivated, ready to follow their rabbis onto the streets and driven by a firm belief that they are doing the work of God, the Haredim make a formidable foe.

"The Haredi leadership's interest is to keep them [Haredim] with their head just above water. I can't see how this can be changed with [Yesh Atid's] 19 parliamentary seats," he said.

You May Like

Video Drug Use Rises in Afghanistan

Ninety percent of world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan More

Here's Your Chance to Live in a Deserted Shopping Mall

About one-third of the 1200 enclosed malls in the US are dead or dying. Here's what's being done with them. More

Video NASA: Big Antarctica Ice Shelf Is Disintegrating

US space agency’s new study indicates Larsen B shelf could break up in just a few years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriagei
X
May 21, 2015 4:14 AM
The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.
Video

Video Women to March for Peace Between Koreas

Prominent female activists from around the world plan to march through the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea to call for peace between the two neighbors, divided for more than 60 years. The event, taking place May 24, marks the International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament and has been approved by both Koreas. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug Use Rises in Afghanistan Following Record High Poppy Crops

Afghanistan has seen record high poppy crops during the last few years - and the result has been an alarming rise in illegal drug use and addiction in the war-torn country. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem has this report from Kabul.
Video

Video America’s Front Lawn Gets Overhaul

America’s front yard is getting a much-needed overhaul. Almost two kilometers of lawn stretch from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument. But the expanse of grass known as the National Mall has taken a beating over the years. Now workers are in the middle of restoring the lush, green carpet that fronts some of Washington’s best-known sights. VOA’s Steve Baragona took a look.

VOA Blogs