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

Photogallery Snowstorm Sweeps Northeastern US

'This is nothing like we feared it would be,' New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says; he had earlier warned storm could be one of worst the city has ever faced More

Millions of Displaced Nigerians Struggle With Daily Existence

Government acknowledges over a million people displaced in 2014 due to fight against Boko Haram insurgency More

Facebook: Internal Error to Blame for Outages

Temporary outage appeared to spill over and temporarily slow or block traffic to other major Internet sites 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.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid