Sometimes you wonder what Hashem makes of all this.
In recent years, elections have become truly insane – both in Israel and in the United States. The anger, vitriol, and malicious vilification by all sides of the other sides is staggering. But, in at least one way, they did one thing more efficiently in Israel. In America, they are trying to undo an election for over two years. Here it was undone in only five weeks!
After all the Sturm and Drang, the victory proclamations, the claimed vindication of daas Torah by the chareidi parties, the humiliating defeat of those who did not pass the threshold – we get to throw out that result and start over again. Everyone has an opinion on who is to blame (most blaming Avigdor Liberman), and more importantly, what is likely to result. Will the next election result in a strong majority coalition of at least 65 votes, or will we be back at square one once again?
And a question regarding Parshas HaShavua (in Chutz LaAretz): We know that Parshas Sh’lach is all about the M’raglim (the Debacle of the Spies). Why is the word “m’raglim” not used even once in the entire sidrah? (The word is only used in the recounting of the story in Parshas D’varim.)
Here is what seems likely to happen in Israel to this observer.
Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Avigdor Liberman, was founded about 20 years ago, primarily to represent the large group of Russian immigrants in Israel. Recently it had to evolve, as younger, more integrated Russians are not as interested in such a sectarian party. These days, its call to arms on the election posters was Y’min v’gam Chiloni (Right-Wing and Secular). Liberman seeks to represent those who are politically and nationally conservative but want nothing to do with religion. Thus, it has become a militant secularist party on the Right, to match Meretz, the militant secularist party on the Left. For the second time in half a year, Yisrael Beiteinu has forced new elections, this time by refusing to commit their five seats to the other 60 pledged to Netanyahu.
Liberman’s personal animus to Netanyahu was central to this refusal, as documented in a persuasive essay by Caroline Glick. Of course, Liberman claimed that his stonewalling was an act of principle against the chareidim. Despite many incentives, he refused to budge one centimeter off his demand that there be a set quota for drafting chareidim into the Army. (This despite experts who say that the whole issue – if judged purely by the requirements of the military – is moot; the Army does not need any chareidi soldiers.) The chareidi parties were willing to compromise. As Glick wrote:
“The ostensible reason for his refusal to reach a coalition agreement is his insistence that Netanyahu pass a draft law that would require the ultra-Orthodox community to fill specific quotas of draftees annually. Liberman’s position made little sense on its merits. The ultra-Orthodox parties agreed, during the negotiations, to fill draft quotas. But they insisted that the quotas be determined annually by the government, rather than by law, since the Israel Defense Force’s requirements change from year to year. By making the number of conscripts a function of a government decision, the number can be raised or lowered, depending on military requirements in a manner that would be impossible if the quotas are fixed in standing law.”
Although the chareidi parties represented 16 seats while Liberman had only five, and the chareidi parties were willing to compromise while he was not, much of the media blamed the chareidim for being the ones unwilling to make a deal.
Statements out of the chareidi parties assure the public that this was a good result, such as, “So many people are angry at Liberman that he will not cross the electoral threshold.” Halevai (If only) this would be true; so far, polls are leaning in the opposite direction. With Liberman now the new secularist hero for standing up to the chareidim, he may get as many as nine seats. Meretz, interestingly, looks also to go to five from four seats. While the chareidi parties will probably stay at around the same strength, the two large parties may lose a few seats, although Likud will be the largest. It will remain to be seen what the religious Zionist parties will do. Will Bennett and Feiglin attempt to run separately again, or will they join together, or with other parties, to avoid wasting many votes as they did last time? Will sanity or egos prevail? No one knows.
Will Netanyahu be able to cobble together a coalition this time? Hopefully, the Religious Zionist parties and Bennett and Feiglin will get their act together so that Netanyahu can form a coalition with them and the chareidi parties without Liberman. What will happen if yet another stalemate is reached? A coalition between Blue and White, the Left, the Arabs and Liberman? Perhaps – but then Liberman will have to sell his soul even more than he has already. Or will we have a national unity government between the two large parties, who cannot stand each other? Very unclear.
One thing, however, is clear. Battle lines between the militantly secular and the religious are being drawn. I hate to contemplate the likely electioneering to come, with those seeking to blame all the Nation’s problems on the growing power of the religious, particularly of the chareidim, but I fear that it will get quite ugly.
Underlying all this is a growing societal struggle. On the one hand, the electoral power of the chareidim is undeniably growing. While mainly due to demographics, with an average of 7.1 children per chareidi woman compared to 3.1 in the general population, it is also due to the growing pull towards tradition and Judaism, with many of the old animosities falling.
On the other hand, those who are opposed to religion are increasingly feeling threatened, as the chareidim move closer to a majority in the country. With 58% of the over one million chareidim under the age of 20, as compared with 30% of the rest of the community, projections are that chareidim will comprise 16% of the total population by 2030 and constitute a third of all citizens, and 40% of the Jewish population in 2065. This is deeply troubling to those, like Liberman and his cohort, for whom the thought of the chareidim having more electoral power is anathema. They are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent the State from turning into a “halachic state,” a term unwisely referenced by Bezalel Smotrich.
All that is perhaps inevitable, but most unfortunate. Although the extremists on all sides will make hurtful and damaging statements, the truth is that for the silent majority, many of the old animosities are lessening.
From the chareidi side – despite the horrible actions by the Peleg Yerushalmi and others engaged in non-stop chilul Hashem as they make religious Jews look like wild-eyed, hateful ingrates interested only in protecting their turf – things are different. More chareidim are entering the labor force, supporting themselves, participating in the many organizations of civic responsibility such as ZAKA, Yad Sarah, Hatzalah, and many others. Moreover, indeed, more and more are serving in the Army. The tone of the ads for Yahadus HaTorah this past election were notable for stressing positive messages to the Israeli public, the importance of Shabbat for everyone, and about striving for social fairness for all sectors. This was no doubt helpful in their rise in the polls.
From the secular side, there are more and more people who – while not officially religious – are looking for a greater connection with Torah and our heritage. There are many groups of “non-religious” Israelis throughout the country who regularly participate in Torah study and t’filah, and they are growing. Two organizations that I am involved with are very much encouraging this trend, and there are many others. One is Ayelet HaShachar, who began shuls and religious services in secular kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the country, established a huge network of chavrusos who study together by phone on a regular basis, and have helped to plant people like me – the only religious family in a completely secular yishuv – to spread the light of Torah in quiet and pleasant ways. Another is a fascinating group called “HaKipot HaShkufot” (the Transparent Kippot), a grassroots coalition of religious, formerly religious, not-yet religious, and non-religious-but-interested-in-tradition working together. They put together a national Tikun Leil Shavuos, inviting people of all kinds to come together and share their thoughts about a tradition or Jewish value topic, and honor Z’man Matan Toraseinu.
The bottom line: While an ugly battle about the place of religion in Israel is likely between the loud voices and extremists for the next few months, we take solace in knowing that this is not the direction of the majority, on both sides.
Getting back to Parshas HaShavua, I heard an interesting contrast drawn by Rav Yaacov Haber of Bet Shemesh. In Parshas Sh’lach we meet the group that Moshe sent “lasur es ha’aretz” – to be tourists. Tourists come to a place and want to see the good and pleasant and enjoyable things about the land that they are visiting. The problem is, as Moshe ruefully recounts as he surveys what had happened in hindsight in Parshas D’varim, is that they came not as tourists but as spies (m’raglim), looking for negatives, the weaknesses, the hostile aspects of the Land – and that is what they reported, leading to calamity.
You see what you want to see. One can survey what is going on in Israel on the surface, and it looks like dangerous chaos and bickering. If, however, one looks to see the good, there is so much that is positive going on, even in the area that will be most in contention – the divide between the secular and the religious.
“May Hashem bless you from Tzion; may you share the good of Yerushalayim all the days of your life (T’hilim 128:5).”
Note: An excerpt of this article appeared in The Jewish Press.
By Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, and writer living presently in Forest Hills, and hoping to go on aliyah. He has served as rabbi in several congregations, and helps individuals with wills, trusts, and mediation.