Israeli parliament set for record influx of Orthodox lawmakers

JERUSALEM Thu Jan 17, 2013 8:38am EST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - With Israel's election days away, Orthodox Jews swayed in prayer at a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, delaying his entrance while politicians waited politely.

The image captured a sea change in Israeli politics.

Orthodox Jews have left niche parties to join Likud and other mainstream factions, challenging the dominance of non-observant politicians and infusing Israeli politics with religious fervor and a harder line on the Palestinian conflict.

Opinion polls predict that religious politicians will end up with a record 40 of parliament's 120 seats after Tuesday's vote, compared with 25 in the outgoing assembly elected in 2009. Two decades ago only a score of lawmakers were religiously Orthodox.

While some Israelis rejoice, some in the secular majority fear the trend may alter the identity of a nation which has never marked out the troublesome boundaries between religion and state - and which also has a substantial Arab Muslim minority.

Many foresee renewed disputes over the "Jewishness" and the conversion of immigrants.

Others fret about further attempts by hardcore members of pro-settler parties such as Likud and the even harder line Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) group to rein in Israel's secular-minded high court, restrict civil liberties and step up monitoring of foreign funding for human rights and other groups.

"In the long run I see a weakening of the foundations of the state's democracy," said Israeli sociologist Batia Siebzehner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, citing the track record of Orthodox politicians urging the state to embrace religious law.

That prospect horrifies secular Israelis, who do not relish comparisons with Iran, an avowedly Islamic republic, or Arab states where Islamist factions are gaining ground.


David Stav, a moderate Orthodox rabbi running for chief rabbi in a poll later this year, says such fears are overblown.

"This is not going to be a theocracy," he told Reuters. Most religious politicians are "committed to a Jewish and democratic state and don't want to see themselves as coercive to others".

Nevertheless, centrist as well as right-wing parties are fielding religious candidates. Netanyahu has made a point of having himself photographed with skullcap-wearing voters.

A rabbi has joined ex-television star Yair Lapid's centrist list. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has tapped an ex-general who wears a skullcap for her centrist party as well.

In past elections, Orthodox politicians mainly represented smaller parties focused on religious issues. Their integration into larger parties is helping them to gain more seats in parliament, although Orthodox Israelis are still a minority.

A survey by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute found last year that 22 percent of Israeli Jews were observant, including the ultra-Orthodox and more moderately Orthodox, far outnumbered by the 78 percent who were non-observant.

Yet they may exert a disproportionate influence.

Religious movements seeking to expand Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and deny the Palestinians a state are supplanting once-powerful kibbutzniks as symbols of Israel's self-declared national mission, many experts say.

The kibbutz, the collective farm movement identified with Israel's early settlement of the land, long dominated military and political leadership, despite its relatively small numbers. Pollsters say the kibbutz movement may win no seats next week.

"The ideological tables have turned and religious Zionists are taking over the national discourse," said Tamar El Or, a Hebrew University anthropologist, adding that the trend was not new, but was now translating into influence in parliament.


The rise of religiously fired Jewish settlers has coincided with widespread Israeli disillusion with failed negotiations with the Palestinians, compounded in the last two years by Arab uprisings that have brought Islamists to power, especially in Egypt, making its 1979 peace treaty with Israel look fragile.

A more religiously-tinged parliament could lead to a "rise in racism, separatism (and) less democracy," El Or said.

"It will become more difficult to be a citizen in this country if you're an immigrant, not Jewish and certainly if you're an Arab," she added, referring to Israeli Arabs who hold citizenship and make up a fifth of the population, but who complain of discrimination.

For now, Orthodox lawmakers may focus more on promoting Jewish settlements than on trying to enforce religious law, an enterprise that might swiftly anger the secular majority.

"If they get drunk on their power or try to push a religious agenda, they may find themselves facing a backlash," said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Some in the more liberal Orthodox camp want to heal rifts with non-observant Israelis, especially on the conversion issue - the Orthodox rabbinate does not recognize many immigrants as Jews or the right of more liberal rabbis to convert them.

Stav forecast "catastrophe" for Israel if the row dragged on because it would deter immigrants and handicap Jews in any demographic race with Arabs. "We won't survive here," he said.

Likud lawmaker Tzipi Hotovely, a pro-settler candidate, said her fellow-Orthodox MPs should focus on security issues and on rejecting pressure to relinquish to the Palestinians "Biblical" land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

"Our job is to lead a world view of Jewish identity and to preserve the Land of Israel," she said. "We need to aim for meaningful influence, and not be content with supervising Jewish dietary laws."

At Netanyahu's Likud meeting, the Orthodox worshippers in knitted skullcaps and prayer vests with white fringes dangling below their shirts, rocked and muttered their afternoon prayers, as their non-observant colleagues waited in patient silence.

They were putting a new complexion on the expression party faithful - and perhaps on Israeli politics.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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Comments (2)
paintcan wrote:
“Our job is to lead a world view of Jewish identity and to preserve the Land of Israel,” she said. “We need to aim for meaningful influence, and not be content with supervising Jewish dietary laws.”

That could be called “counter-reformation thinking” if it can be called anything. It could also be called “diggin-in” getting down, or even getting dirty over the fundamentals etc. etc. But it will probably be expressed as racial chauvinism.

I will be watching with baited breath how they decide what “Jewishness” means actually. I was raised a Christian and we never worried about “Catholicness” that somehow got us real estate based on our sexual equipment and bloodlines. Actually, there was a strain of chauvinism that did want to get embarrassingly gene based and it was hard to reconcile with other opposing strains of Catholic tradition that were based on celibacy and the refutation of “religious” people leaving “earthy” offspring: the traditional story of Jesus being the principal example. Catholicism and Christianity (seldom the Protestant side) is not the only one of the world’s religious traditions that expected ‘serious” followers to forswear the prospect of having families. I dare anyone to get cynical and dismissive without thinking too closely about this issue and what it means to the practitioner. I am gay and can’t quite say my childlessness is due to the same intent or requires leading a life with nearly the same degree of self-control. I tend to consider my condition more a matter of social disability for a variety of reasons, not all of which are my own fault or due to my own lack of self control.

It should be remembered that Orthodox Jews and Islam also do not accept a “woman’s right to choose”. That means that one of the core reasons countries can start wars; that being their need to accommodate expansion of numbers within what are usually closed containers, will be aggravated even more there now. Society begins to act like a gas or fluid that increases in pressure and temperature when increasingly introduced into a confined space. I think it is fair to suggest that Orthodox “influence” on the meaning of Jewish life will very quickly translate into more Jews in and more Palestinians out.

This is not encouraging news for the stability of the ME and I think it will prove in time to be an unfortunate and tragic waste of time, resources and life. Boneheadedness usually is. Maybe I should call that “bonerheadedness”.

I could recommend a very funny speech Mark Twain once delivered to an exclusive gentleman’s club in Paris regarding the act of “self abuse”. I never know why anyone called such an act of mercy self abuse. I can think of so many more abusive situations to introduce one’s third leg to, it’s down right intimidating.

A that may have been the problem all along.

Jan 17, 2013 10:35am EST  --  Report as abuse
paintcan wrote:
“and the refutation of “religious” people leaving “earthy” offspring:”

should be- the decision made by some “professionally” religious people not to have any offspring at all. I am referring to nuns and monks. They used to be a great help in the past and they had the enormous advantage to their societies of being “cheap to keep”. They were voluntary slaves. They were always bound to do what they were told. Societies live on the foundation of some very ugly struggles for survival and they actually managed to keep that struggle humane most of the time. The dispensation they received form t old world societies was they were never expected to take part in the murderous struggle of warfare but they frequently put themselves at the aid of the victims. IT was not always respected by the society as a whole. The French Revolution – the Protestant reformation in Europe and now modern life has put many to the “sword” literally and figuratively.

Those who used to do that in far higher numbers than they do today: were they fools? Were they deluding themselves? Were they simply the safety value for compressed and deeply class riven societies? Was religion being used to stanch the weaker or less aggressive members of their societies and allow for some humane and somewhat passive exercises in eugenics? In other words, had the wolves and sheep dogs of society learned to pull the copious wool of the sheep over their own eyes? Maybe so? And maybe it was absolutely necessary to be able to do that at the time? Maybe it would still be a good idea to be able to allow many people who are not temperamentally suited to the enormous levels of aggression required to live in modern life, still to be able to do that? But it doesn’t work well now because most people in the modern world are getting used to the idea that there was something deeply abusive and mistaken about past practice, everywhere and that democracy makes the entire concept of “taking orders” disgusting. It can become the plaything and very abused tool of dictators, maniacs and frauds.

I have always found that the religious indoctrination I experienced as a child and even into my adult years has never been anything but a very uncomfortable fit. And no matter what I have done, read, thought or seen since then – in over 60 years – this princess can always find that damned pea, and she so likes a good nights sleep, and would happily (so she still seems to think) sleep right through the day if she just didn’t have to get up in the morning and see to the needs of her miserable skin.

It is worth thinking about the Israel is a state that effectively keeps and subsidizes a class of professional “breeders”. It may be an embarrassing and impolite question to air, but this is a society with a media that can ask some of the most impertinent questions imaginable. We are an increasingly globally based society that values personal privacy to a degree never before practical and yet there is hardly a thing that one could claim is private, especially regarding how people think, feel or act and it might be very embarrassingly evident in so called “Mega data”. It is impossible not to notice how other peoples and cultures live in their most intimate lives. The contradictions must be confronted. Go Figure? IF the questions aren’t adequately confronted and solution are not adequately proposed and adopted, it seem very likely that they will make for some terrible and destructive conflicts that will accomplish nothing but the death of our species as a whole.

There are times when I couldn’t care less and I can’t lie and claim they are the better or happier moments of my life. I may be able to get a better night (and day’s) sleep but society and one’s own ambition doesn’t let one maintain that fraud for very long, I find.

Jan 18, 2013 9:58am EST  --  Report as abuse
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