Tel Aviv Diary: Ultra-Orthodox Turn Up the Heat – Newsweek

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The Israeli government and or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to approve three exceedingly unpopular proposals in the last few days.

It did so as a result of the political pressure wielded by the ultra-Orthodox factions, who make up 8 percent of the Israeli population.

First, the ultra-Orthodox urged that repair work must not be done on Israel’s railroads during the Sabbath. Netanyahu agreed and ordered all such work stopped.

Second, the ultra-Orthodox insisted on the cancellation of the agreement reached to create a distinct area of the Western Wall that dedicated for egalitarian prayer, (which, incidentally had been approved by this current government) and this long and fiercely negotiated, good-faith compromise was set aside.

Third, the ultra-Orthodox demanded that only conversions done under their auspices be recognized by the state, and now a new law was approved by the government makes that so. The second two decisions have provoked outrage in the American Jewish community.

A bit of explanation is necessary to clarify who the ultra-Orthodox are.

GettyImages-517401416 An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man dances on a table in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on March 24, 2016 during the feast of Purim. The carnival-like Purim holiday is celebrated with parades and costume parties to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them in the ancient Persian empire 2,500 years ago, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty

Ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism developed in 18th century Europe, as a response to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment and the Emancipation allowed Jews to become integrated in the larger European society, without having to convert to Christianity.  

Jews responded in a number of ways. Many Jews became secular, while others founded Reform Judaism, which was an early attempt to integrate Judaism into a largely Christian world.

Others founded what we know of today as Modern Orthodoxy, a version of Orthodoxy that says you can integrate professionally into the modern world, while still maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle.

Finally, there was the response asserted that Jews must cut themselves off from others — to the best of their ability— and live in self-imposed ghettos. The world of this last group is best summed up with a statement made by one of the founders of the ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Chatam Sofer, who said: “What is new, is bad.”

It should noted that in 19th century Europe, a new movement developed that was Zionism. The greatest opponents of Zionism were the ultra-Orthodox, who opposed any attempt to build a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah.

One more point of information is necessary to understand what has happened and that is Israel’s fragile coalition system. In order to form a government in Israel, you need the support of 61 (out of 120) members of the Knesset.

In the early years of the state, the party in power would of often gain 40 seats or more, thus it would not be difficult to put together a coalition, (i.e., finding another 21+ members to join). Today, the major parties receive significantly fewer votes, and despite repeated attempts to reform the system, it is still necessary to gain support from many smaller swing parties in order to govern.

Until the 1980s, the ultra-Orthodox parties refrained from joining Israeli governments, and thus, were largely outside the coalition negotiations. Since that time, they have used the system to their advantage in obtaining funding for their institutions and ensuring that their children do not have to go the army.

The ultra-Orthodox parties ( Yahadut HaTorah and Shas ) are key members of the Netanyahu Coalition. Politics is always a challenge, but one of the underlying foundations of coalition building is that they tend to remain stable, only as long as members do not believe it is in their interest to have new elections.

In the case of the ultra-Orthodox parties, however, its is not the politicians who make most of the choices, but rather, the Rabbis who hand down decisions. Thanks to the Internet and smartphones—which despite attempts of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban them and the increasing needs (especially for women) to enter the workforce—the control of the Rabbis on their communities has lessened.

Moreover, In the last decade, a significant number of ultra-Orthodox have chosen to leave the community. These phenomena have resulted in the rabbis doubling-down, often taking ever more extreme positions, which their politicians are obligated to follow.

Over the years, most Israelis have navigated their rather uneasy rapport with religion, and particularly where the ultra-Orthodox are concerned. The State of Israel inherited the system that was put into place during the British Mandate; where individual religions maintain responsibility for the personal status of their members.

It has always been a perplexing relationship since only 10 percent of Israelis claim to be religious and another 8 percent Ultra Orthodox. Non-religious Israelis are often upset when ultra-Orthodox control interferes with their own lives – as it does when marriage, divorce, and death are involved.

Furthermore, over the years the fact that the ultra-religious do not serve in the army has repeatedly remained a hot button issue.

There are a number of events that took place, going back to the end of the 1980s, that drove us to the events of the last few days.

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