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

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

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