Religious Politics at a Crossroads in Israel

Natan Sachs

On October 7th, a towering figure in Israeli religious life, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, died at age 93. His death leaves the political party he patronized, Shas, at an unprecedented moment of crisis. Moreover, the death of Rabbi Ovadiah (as he was commonly known) comes at a time in which religious politics in Israel is at a crossroads. After the 2013 election, the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties were left out of the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the modern-orthodox nationalist party “The Jewish Home” is engaged in a parliamentary alliance with the staunchly secularist Yesh Atid party led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, breaking with the religious camp and joining the coalition. Among the Ashkenazi Haredi parties there is a crisis of leadership, and now Shas is facing a daunting leadership challenge which could easily see the party split.

In terms of foreign policy, these changes mean that the religious camp is less likely to serve as a powerbroker between right and left as it has done in the past, but that small factions from among the religious parties may break with the right-wing (and hawkish) camp in the future.

Sephardic Haredim and Shas

Few people have had a more profound effect on Israeli society over the past few decades than Rabbi Ovadiah, evidenced by the many hundreds of thousands who came to Jerusalem for his funeral, including the Israeli president and prime minister.

Rabbi Ovadiah was born in Baghdad in 1920 and moved to Jerusalem at the age of three. From an early age he stood out as a brilliant student and rose quickly to rabbinical roles in Cairo, Egypt, and later in Israel. As an Iraqi Jew, Rabbi Ovadiah was not strictly “Sephardic”—literally “Spanish”, or descendent from the Jews of Spain, expelled in 1492, and those in the cultural sphere of Spain’s Jewry, notably North African Jews. But in modern Israel a dichotomy has emerged between Ashkenazi (European origin) and Sephardic or “Eastern” Jews, into which most other groups are clumped, including Iraqi Jews. Indeed, Rabbi Ovadiah himself worked tirelessly to standardize and homogenize Sephardic religious practice in accordance with the teachings of Rabbi Yosef Karo (a Spanish Jewish sage who worked in 16th century Safed in the Galilee). For vast swaths of Israeli society, including many non-observant Jews, Rabbi Ovadiah gave pride and social standing to a very large and disenfranchised part of society, elevating in particular the culture of North African Jewry in Israel.

In his rulings as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiah struck a moderate tone. Among his more notable rulings, he declared the Falash of Ethiopia to be Jewish, thereby paving the way for their emigration to Israel under the Israeli law of return, as well as the rescue mission Israel carried out in 1991 which brought over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, just as rebels were approaching Addis Ababa (“Operation Solomon.”) After the traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973, thousands of widows of the war faced the possibility of being considered agunot (a religious term for a woman who is “chained” to her marriage to an absent husband— a common occurrence in the case of a soldier missing in action, or a husband who refuses to grant his wife a divorce, barring her from remarrying, often indefinitely.) Rabbi Ovadiah declared the lost soldiers dead from a religious standpoint, thus enabling their widows to remarry in religious institutions (which hold authority in Israel over marital issues). Most famously perhaps, Rabbi Ovadiah ruled that saving lives—the Jewish commandment that takes precedence over any other commandment—justifies even the return of territory from the Land of Israel, paving the way for Shas to enable the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinians, as partners of Yitzhak Rabin.

Yet for many Israelis, including many Sephardic Israelis (who constitute a significant portion of the population), Rabbi Ovadiah’s remedy for Sephardic disenfranchisement was worse than the disease. Through Shas, Rabbi Ovadiah instituted religious learning as the primary value, at the great expense of secular education. He created a large sector of Sephardic-Haredim, who imitated the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox in dress and social marginalization. Rabbi Ovadiah himself often dressed in the garb of a Chief Sephardic Rabbi (even long after he left the post) but the men that surrounded him, largely of North African and Middle Eastern descent, dressed in the black attire of 19th century Poland that Ashkenazi Haredim wear.

Shas appealed not only to Haredim; the majority of its voters are traditionalist or modern orthodox Sephardic Jews. As such it became very powerful, and played the pivotal role in Israeli politics during much of the 1990s. In 1990 Shas allowed Finance Minister (and now President) Shimon Peres to topple the government of Yitzhak Shamir, to which both Peres and Shas belonged. In doing so, Rabbi Ovadiah had broken with his Ashkenazi patron, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, declaring, in essence, the independence of Shas, which had been formed in 1984 as a Sephardic party under Ovadiah but also Shach’s patronage. Israel held its breath as the leaders of the Haredi community gathered to hear the aged Rabbi Shach denounce the left-wing, with Rabbi Ovadiah sitting near him. In barely intelligible language (much of it Yiddish), Rabbi Shach had apparently sided with Yitzhak Shamir, who formed a new government in place of the one Peres had toppled.

Before long, however, Shas’s independence would be reasserted when it joined Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1992. Since then, Rabbi Ovadiah emerged as an independent religious leader, unbound from Ashkenazi Haredi patronage.

The power of Shas, however, also garnered fevered animosity from the secular majority in Israel, which was angry over the funds Shas secured for its own following, rather than the greater public, and more than anything, for the growing number of Haredi men who were exempt from the military service that is required of all Jewish men (and secular women). While young secular Jewish Israelis served for years, often risking their lives and losing friends and loved ones in battle, their Haredi counterparts fulfilled their duty, according to their political leaders, by studying Torah and guarding Israel through divine favor.

As a result of the secular ire toward Shas, the party found itself outside the coalition of Ariel Sharon in 2003, when the staunchly secularist Shinui party, led by Yosef Lapid, gained considerable backing. In 2013, Lapid’s son Yair managed to leave the Haredi parties outside the coalition as well. To do so, however, Yair Lapid had to ally himself with the modern-orthodox.

The National Religious and the “Jewish Home”

Modern orthodox in Israel (or “national-religious”) tend to be far more integrated in society then Haredim, serving in the military, studying secular as well as religious curricula and integrating into the general work force. Moreover, unlike Haredim, in recent decades they tend to be the most nationalist group in Israel, heavily overrepresented among settlers in the West Bank.

For some modern orthodox, the double affiliation of religious and far-right nationalist led to a sense of marginalization from the general society. This was especially so when a religious and extreme nationalist ideologue assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 over the peace process with the Palestinians. In the aftermath of the assassination, many modern orthodox felt accused, collectively, for the frenzied and polarized atmosphere that preceded the assassination and, in some eyes, facilitated it. When Ariel Sharon, the erstwhile patron of the settler movement, evacuated all the settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005 (in the “disengagement” from Gaza, or the “expulsion” as many settlers still refer to it), the modern orthodox again felt marginalized and even victimized.

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Against this background, a new leadership emerged before the elections of 2013. Naftali Bennett, a young, dynamic and generally pragmatic leader—although not on the Palestinian issue—was elected to lead The Jewish Home, the successor to the National Religious Party. Bennett is a moderate religious man who lives in Ra’anana, an upper middle class suburb of Tel Aviv well within the boundaries of Israel proper. A non-settler, hi-tech millionaire former commando officer, Bennett represented the most “Israeli” face of the national religious community to date; one that the general secular population could identify with. To a degree, Bennett represented the return of the national religious camp to mainstream Israel, after the traumas of 1995 and 2005.

And yet, the price of returning to mainstream Israeli society was a break with the Haredi camp. In forging his alliance with Lapid following the 2013 elections, Bennett (now minister of the economy, among other portfolios) left the rest of the religious camp outside the coalition. In part, this served a purpose for The Jewish Home. The party has sought to reclaim long-lost jobs and positions of influence in state-sponsored religious institutions, which Shas had increasingly dominated in recent years. Not surprisingly, Shas has been the most vocal critic of The Jewish Home’s alliance with Lapid. Recently, Rabbi Ovadiah referred to The Jewish Home as “The Gentile Home,” a derogatory term in his vocabulary.

A notable exception to the Jewish Home’s renewed dominance in state-sponsored institutions was the failure of the party to promote its candidates for Chief Ashkenazi and Sephardic Rabbis, where the Haredi-sponsored camp was victorious. The new Chief Sephardic Rabbi is, in fact, Rabbi Ovadiah’s son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. But this exception demonstrates the motivation for The Jewish Home’s bold move. The Chief Rabbinate, despite its name (and the insistence of Foreign Policy Magazine to list the Chief Rabbis among the 500 most powerful people in the world), is a relatively unimportant position, especially from the standpoint of religious authority. As a state-sponsored position it serves as an arbiter of religious questions for the state (such as Rabbi Ovadiah’s rulings on the Judaism of Ethiopian Jews or the marital status of widows of the Yom Kippur War), but it is held in very low regard by the more conservative Haredim, who generally do not consider themselves “Zionist” and prefer, when possible, to rely on their own communal institutions rather than those of the state. The Modern orthodox were thus understandably angry at the Haredi domination of the position, as only modern orthodox use its services (and even many modern orthodox prefer to follow other Rabbis.)

The Ashkenazi Haredim and the United Jewish Torah

Among the Ashkenazi Haredim, the exclusion from the governing coalition has had dramatic effects as well. In particular, Lapid, as finance minister, has enacted sharp cuts to child subsidies. At the urging of the Haredi parties, the state gave allowances to families for each child; funding that proved particularly helpful for very large Haredi families, where the men often do not participate in the general workforce. Until recently, the allowances grew disproportionately with the size of the family, such that a tenth child awarded the parents with a greater subsidy then the first child. This disproportionality and the overall size of the allowances have now been cut dramatically.

Moreover, the new coalition has set in motion a policy that will, presumably, lead to the conscription of most Haredi men (although postponed implementation may mean that the policy will change before it is fully implemented.) The putative destruction of the large networks of religious schools (Yeshivot) in which young men study instead of participating in some form of national service cuts at the very heart of the Haredi world’s institutions.

Finally, the Ashkenazi Haredi community is facing its own leadership crisis. The Ashkenazi Haredi world divides broadly into two camps, the Hasidic camp, with various courts surrounding hereditary rabbinical lineages (Hasidic practice has strong elements of mysticism), and the older Litvak community which stresses study and non-mystical practice. Rabbis in the Litvak community tend to be chosen for their brilliance rather than strictly on the basis of their lineage, and therefore the great Litvak rabbis—such as the late Rabbi Shach—are held in very high esteem throughout the orthodox Jewish world.

With the passing of Shach’s successor, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, in July 2013, the Litvak world in Israel has essentially split between a more hardline camp in Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and a more pragmatic camp based near Tel Aviv led by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman. With no single rabbinic authority, the politicians of the Ashkenazi Haredim are more divided than ever.

Shas’s Crises and Future Paths

The death of Rabbi Ovadiah leaves a dramatic void at the head of Shas. Whereas previously, all issues could be arbitrated by Rabbi Ovadiah and his court, today there is no single successor. Rabbi Ovadiah’s children often played central roles in this process, most recently his youngest son Moshe and Moshe’s wife Yehudith, who control the lucrative family business which provides kosher certification for restaurants and public institutions.

The most notable decision by Rabbi Ovadiah was to depose the beloved and charismatic political leader of Shas, Arieh Der’i, who was charged with (and later convicted of) bribery. Der’i was the brilliant young politician who had led Shas in its more moderate phase and supported Rabin in the Oslo process. In his place, Rabbi Ovadiah appointed the hawkish Eli Yishai in 1999. More recently, after Der’i completed his term in prison and returned to political life, Rabbi Ovadiah and his court reappointed Der’i in Yishai’s place.

At present, the Der’i and Yishai camps are at loggerheads. The parliamentary faction of Shas includes many Yishai supporters, as do the party’s vast social welfare networks, which Yishai led for many years. Moreover, one of the main candidates to replace Rabbi Ovadiah, former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, is considered a patron of Yishai. With the support of Rabbi Amar, Yishai might well launch a bid to reclaim the leadership of Shas and even split the party, taking his loyalists with him.

Der’i, on the other hand, has the support of Rabbi Ovadiah’s court, and especially his youngest son and daughter in law. He is also considered far more charismatic than Yishai and garners widespread support from the public. Der’i is unlikely to cede leadership and with his close relationships with politicians from other parties he could, possibly, even change Shas into a more general party, in alliance with other sectors of Israeli society.

Politically, the left in Israel may be able to utilize the anger of the Haredi camp toward the modern orthodox, and far-right, Jewish Home. Using a ticket of socio-economic concerns, parts of Shas may be amenable to supporting a more left-leaning economic policy. For now, the fragmentation of the religious camp means it may be harder for the religious parties to play right and left against each other as they have done in the past.

However, in regards to foreign policy matters, the hopes that some had that Der’i would return to facilitate peace negotiations with the Palestinians were largely unrealistic. With Der’i’s leadership of Shas in question, and facing a hawkish Shas electorate, he is unlikely to try and align Shas with the left in support of a push for peace.