We Jews are good at worrying, and I’m worried.
When speaking about the state of Israel, American Jews always need to remember that we’ve chosen to live here and not there and so we must be deferential to our Israeli brothers and sisters who are on the front lines and not second-guess them. They are the ones who must make the tough decisions and live with the consequences. They have done so in free elections last March and are now forming a new ruling coalition government.
Though Israelis have every right living in a democracy to choose their leaders, what Israel does affects Jews living in the Diaspora too, and it is on this basis that we living here have a right to speak and be part of the conversation. This conversation, of course, isn’t easy. We are, after all, a complicated people living in a complicated time, and Israel is situated in a dangerous region of the world.
Though the Israeli right-wing prevailed in this last election, I don’t believe that liberal Zionism is dead. Liberal Zionist values are still held by the majority of Israel’s political center, center-right and center-left. Israelis still want a Jewish democratic state. Though racism and anti-democratic trends are intensifying in certain segments of Israeli society egged on by elements in political parties that will be part of the ruling coalition government, and extremism is growing, Israelis as a whole are neither racist nor extremist.
A free press and independent judiciary are still alive and well in Israel, and every issue is debated thoroughly out in the open. Human rights organizations advocating and working on behalf of immigrants, asylum seekers, women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, democracy, and pluralism are doing their work without interference.
As he strives to form a government, Prime Minister Netanyahu is making deals with small parties in exchange for their support. My fear is what those deals mean for the health of Israeli society, its open Jewish character and its democratic institutions all of which will affect continuing support for Israel in the international community and in the United States, and that support has a direct influence on Israel’s security.
The last Israeli ruling coalition government, for the first time in Israeli history, included no Orthodox religious parties. Consequently, progress was made in the Knesset to reduce the amount of money automatically granted to support ultra-Orthodox synagogues and yeshivot. The goal of that policy was to force thousands upon thousands of non-productive Hareidi students to learn general studies in order to be able to enter the Israeli work force and thus reduce the unfair financial burden carried by Israeli tax-payers having to support them and their very large families indefinitely.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has brought back into power the very ultra-Orthodox Religious Parties (i.e. Shas and United Torah Judaism) that opposed this policy thus representing a major step backwards and a threat to social and economic fairness and equality, religious pluralism, and diversity in Israeli society.
Hiddush, an Israeli organization committed to the separation of church and state in Israel, just published an analysis of what the new coalition agreements with the Ultra-Orthodox religious parties mean. Among its findings are:
1. 4 billion NIS of Israeli taxpayer money once again will be diverted to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students at a time when Israel’s middle class is squeezed and poverty in other sectors is increasing without equal redress. Unfair preferential and discriminatory use of public funds will be given to the Hareidi population, declared illegal by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Netanyahu’s agreement with these parties undermines efforts to reduce massive subsidies and removes incentives for yeshiva students to seek gainful earning potential and not rely on welfare thus handicapping them from integrating into an education-based workforce.
2. Public transportation – There is no public transportation available anywhere in the state of Israel on Shabbat and Holidays. Hiddush shows that public support (among the adult Jewish population) has reached an all-time high of 74% in favor of public transportation on Shabbat and Holidays including 72% of Likud voters (PM Netanyahu’s own party). This is important because the very people at the lowest end of the economic ladder who cannot afford a car are discriminated against. But the Orthodox parties are against it, and the current prohibition will likely continue.
These are but two consequences in bringing in the ultra-Orthodox parties back into the government. There will likely be more.
You can access Hiddush’s findings here:
1. “Hiddush analysis of new coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism”
2. “74% of Israelis want to change the status Quo – What gives Israel its Jewish character? Is it liberty, justice and peace, as taught by the Hebrew Prophets, or is it the lack of public transportation on Shabbat, which greatly restricts the weakest sectors of Israeli society?”