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 Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community 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.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid