Commentary Magazine


Topic: haredim

Beit Shemesh and the Israeli Culture Wars

The cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic is titled “The Feminists of Zion: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism,” which does not lack for ambition. But the virtue of the article itself is that it doesn’t attempt to live up to the headline, almost surely because the authors didn’t choose the headline themselves. One of the essay’s accomplishments, then, is that its subjects are not larger-than-life, comic-book superheroes and villains but everyday people experiencing a new variation on a recurring theme in Israeli life: the ethno-religious compartmentalization of lived society.

The essay revolves around the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. It was the site of an unambiguously shameful series of incidents brought to the attention of the country, and the wider world, in late 2011. That was when eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a resident of Beit Shemesh, appeared with her mother on an Israeli news program to tell her story: she was being insulted and spit on by Haredi onlookers as she walked to school in the morning. Her family is modern Orthodox, and dresses accordingly, and her story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Out of this outrage grew an Orthodox-secular feminist alliance, and the TNR article details what it sees as its triumphs:

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The cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic is titled “The Feminists of Zion: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism,” which does not lack for ambition. But the virtue of the article itself is that it doesn’t attempt to live up to the headline, almost surely because the authors didn’t choose the headline themselves. One of the essay’s accomplishments, then, is that its subjects are not larger-than-life, comic-book superheroes and villains but everyday people experiencing a new variation on a recurring theme in Israeli life: the ethno-religious compartmentalization of lived society.

The essay revolves around the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. It was the site of an unambiguously shameful series of incidents brought to the attention of the country, and the wider world, in late 2011. That was when eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a resident of Beit Shemesh, appeared with her mother on an Israeli news program to tell her story: she was being insulted and spit on by Haredi onlookers as she walked to school in the morning. Her family is modern Orthodox, and dresses accordingly, and her story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Out of this outrage grew an Orthodox-secular feminist alliance, and the TNR article details what it sees as its triumphs:

The new public consciousness of women’s treatment had a profound impact on last January’s parliamentary elections. Two newcomers, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, deftly forged a modern-Orthodox/secular alliance, pledging to end the special status of Haredi men, including sweeping them into the national draft. Lapid was careful to promote women and women’s issues as an election issue and top priority for his new party, Yesh Atid.

In the 2013 election, for the first time, three women led major parties, and, thanks in no small part to Yesh Atid, the number of women in the legislature rose to a record high of 27—comprising 23 percent of the legislature. Yesh Atid women include new Knesset members Aliza Lavie, a modern-Orthodox feminist activist and university professor, and Ruth Calderon, a secular Jewish academic who founded a non-Orthodox yeshiva. A video of Calderon leading a groundbreaking Talmud study session in the Knesset went viral, showing a female secular scholar discussing Talmud as ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset nodded respectfully.

And while the ultra-Orthodox parties stayed female-free, for the first time, a woman in that community dared to object. Esti Shoshan, a Haredi journalist, created a Facebook page called, “If we can’t run, we won’t vote,” openly challenging the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded women from their party lists and declaring that Haredi women should not vote for their sectoral parties as a result.

The most recognizable way Haredim separate themselves in Israeli society is exemption from military service. When Israel was founded in 1948, the devastation of the Holocaust had convinced Israeli leaders that there should be a center of high Jewish study and scholarship under the watchful care of the new Jewish state. Full-time yeshiva students, of which there were a few hundred at the outset, were exempted from service in the Israeli armed forces.

This was not a one-sided concession at the time; Israel’s political leaders thought the establishment of leading yeshivot was crucial to the Jewish state’s identity and its prestige among Diaspora Jewry. The Orthodox oversight of the state levers of halakha-related regulation was also given in this spirit, and it had the effect of truly making Israel a Jewish state even though its citizens were overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. But it also essentially put the Orthodox in a museum of sorts. What happened if and when the Haredi population surged and they left the museum to walk among the modern and largely non-observant State of Israel was anybody’s guess.

That integration was postponed because of another facet of Israeli society: though much of the country’s residents live in large cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, within those ethnically diverse cities exist ethnic and cultural enclaves. Throughout the rest of the country, immigrant groups have tended to establish themselves in certain towns and cities–except for Russian immigrants, whose sheer numbers make such relative isolation impossible.

What is true for Russian immigrants is beginning to be true for Haredim, and some level of integration is essential. The reason army service is so important is because that has been a major source of integration in the past by plucking Israelis from their enclaves and putting their lives–and the survival of the state–in each other’s hands. Not only does this engender cross-cultural affinity but it builds trust and social cohesion. It is debatable whether the Israel Defense Forces actually needs the manpower of mass Haredi army service, but the benefits of social integration and “sharing the burden” are apparent.

Additionally, participation in the army is reasonably assumed to be a gateway to economic integration; the IDF teaches useful skills and enables Israelis to make connections. It gives them options, and not all those Haredi soldiers will go back to the yeshiva.

And that is why one quote in the article, by a Haredi woman named Surie Ackerman, strikes me as the wrong attitude:

Asked whether the prospect of ultra-Orthodox women joining Israel’s workforce in droves won’t change that dynamic, Ackerman is doubtful: “Small groups of like-minded women might make things different for themselves,” she says, citing a group of Haredi women entrepreneurs who created an annual business forum four years ago. “But it doesn’t break any framework. They aren’t staying in the kitchen anymore, but it’s not a revolution.”

Perhaps the term “revolution” is overused and Ackerman is wise not to do so herself. But the entry of Haredi women into the work force is significant because of the compound interest of such integration: they will not only encourage their friends to follow their example, but they may have a Haredi-sized family and teach the next generation the virtues of careers and social integration.

And the aforementioned Haredi journalist who organized a Facebook group to protest the exclusion of women from Haredi politics may very well have its ripple effects. The headline of the TNR essay, in other words, may be right (or at least have a point). But the divisions within Israeli society have taken decades to produce the trends now leading to these conflicts. Moving those trend lines in the right direction is what’s needed. If they can accomplish that, the revolution will take care of itself.

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A Step Closer to a Shared Burden

Those who look at Israel only through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians have been paying more attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomed attempt to restart the Middle East peace process than it deserves. But for those who understand that Palestinian intransigence doomed that effort even before it started, the real news in Israel has been going on in a negotiation between the country’s political parties, not with Fatah or Hamas. Yesterday’s decision by a Knesset committee to approve a proposal to reform the law governing the military draft could be the first step toward something that the overwhelming majority of the country truly cares about, by adopting a plan to require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army much the same as other Jewish citizens.

The effort to share the burden of service is at the core of the complaints of the majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox Israelis who bitterly resent a situation whereby Haredim are excused from military service and don’t even join the work force. Removing the exemption for all but a handful of men studying in religious seminaries goes a long way toward ending a situation in which one sector of the Jewish community was able to avoid the obligations of citizenship in a nation that remains subject to military threats every day of the year. That the committee approved a version of the legislation that includes potential criminal penalties for Haredim that don’t comply with the requirement to serve is also a triumph for Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.

While the law is still a long way from final passage let alone implementation, it has the potential to not only change Israeli society but also transform its politics. If Lapid, whose new party vaulted to a surprise second-place finish in the elections held in January on the basis of a pledge to change the draft law as well as his charisma, is actually able to make his promise a reality, it could give him the ability to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next time the country goes to the polls.

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Those who look at Israel only through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians have been paying more attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomed attempt to restart the Middle East peace process than it deserves. But for those who understand that Palestinian intransigence doomed that effort even before it started, the real news in Israel has been going on in a negotiation between the country’s political parties, not with Fatah or Hamas. Yesterday’s decision by a Knesset committee to approve a proposal to reform the law governing the military draft could be the first step toward something that the overwhelming majority of the country truly cares about, by adopting a plan to require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army much the same as other Jewish citizens.

The effort to share the burden of service is at the core of the complaints of the majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox Israelis who bitterly resent a situation whereby Haredim are excused from military service and don’t even join the work force. Removing the exemption for all but a handful of men studying in religious seminaries goes a long way toward ending a situation in which one sector of the Jewish community was able to avoid the obligations of citizenship in a nation that remains subject to military threats every day of the year. That the committee approved a version of the legislation that includes potential criminal penalties for Haredim that don’t comply with the requirement to serve is also a triumph for Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.

While the law is still a long way from final passage let alone implementation, it has the potential to not only change Israeli society but also transform its politics. If Lapid, whose new party vaulted to a surprise second-place finish in the elections held in January on the basis of a pledge to change the draft law as well as his charisma, is actually able to make his promise a reality, it could give him the ability to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next time the country goes to the polls.

Lapid’s is not the first centrist party that campaigned on a platform of draft reform to achieve success in its first try for the Knesset. But every one that came before him crashed and burned because it was compromised by taking office alongside one of the dominant parties of the left or the right and failed to make progress toward equalizing the burden of national service.

But this time may really be different.

The last election was the first ever to be held in Israel that was not fought on issues of war and peace. After 20 years of attempts to trade land for peace, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rightly given up on the negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that has proved that it doesn’t want peace. Instead, they are concentrating on domestic concerns and the economy. Lapid, who got stuck with the short straw in coalition negotiations and wound up with the unenviable task of having to balance the budget, won’t earn any glory in making the tough decisions about the country’s finances. But if Haredim really are drafted by the time of the election, he will have done what no other Israeli politician before him has ever come close to achieving.

If so, Yesh Atid will not only not be yet another “one and done” political flash in the pan, but could become the natural party of government rather than a partner to Netanyahu’s Likud.

There could still be plenty of pitfalls for Lapid and his law before it is enforced.

The new law will face constitutional changes on the grounds that it still affords the Haredim unequal treatment, albeit in a far less unfair manner than the status quo.

Even more seriously, Haredi protests and draft resistance could test the resolve of Netanyahu to keep his promise to both Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party to change the draft law. Earlier this week when Lapid had to threaten to bolt the government in order to get the committee to include sanctions against draft dodgers, Haredi leaders threatened to “fill the prisons” en masse rather than serve.

But these problems notwithstanding, Lapid has already taken a giant step toward doing what most Israelis have been begging their government to do for decades. If he can follow through, the sky is the limit for him and his party.

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David Landau vs. Aaron Miller on Haredim

Last week, veteran Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiator and author Aaron David Miller penned a column for the New York Times in which he wrote the following about Israel: “The country’s demographics look bad — too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not enough secular Jews.” Normally, when someone looks at a country’s ethnic makeup and identifies the “problem” as the proliferation of everyone except his own kind, the very reasonable obvious objections will be made across the board.

Miller’s line did not engender this outrage, because it was aimed at Haredim, to which the normal rules of civility do not apply in the American media. But he came in for a walloping from what may seem an unlikely source: David Landau. Landau, the former editor of Haaretz, has made shockingly offensive comments about Israel, and is currently Israel correspondent for The Economist, a magazine whose Israel coverage includes just this type of casual bigotry toward the Haredim. (Three weeks ago, the magazine wrote that “the hallmark of haredism is intolerance.”) But Landau was so upset by Miller’s apparent ignorance that he rose to a quite effusive defense of the Haredim in an interview with his former newspaper:

“I’m sitting here and thinking to myself, ‘Could a non-Jewish person have written that?’” asks Landau. “Would Aaron David Miller have written in The New York Times that the demographics in Turkey look bad — too many veiled women and not enough secular Turks?’ Could he get away with writing that? I feel like saying to him, ‘Tell me, have you bothered checking the demographics of the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio, where you come from? Today, 49 percent of the Jewish children in New York are Haredi, so Aaron David Miller has to look in his own backyard before he makes this sort of statement. This is the kind of know-it-all elitism that has been so characteristic of the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Israeli elite for so long. It’s pathetic, and if in this Economist piece, I’ve succeeded in making six people of consequence rethink Jewish demographics, then the whole thing was worth it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to blur the distinctions between Haredim and Orthodox Zionists, maintains Landau, has contributed enormously to his political success. “The fact that it’s been so easy for Bibi to lump together all the Haredi parties with the settlers and make them the bulwark of his coalition — it’s remarkable when you think about it. Has anyone thought about the fact that there are really no Haredim in the West Bank? That in 2005 the Haredim joined Sharon’s government with the full knowledge that this would enable him to move ahead with the disengagement from Gaza? Why hasn’t that left an impact on people?”

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Last week, veteran Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiator and author Aaron David Miller penned a column for the New York Times in which he wrote the following about Israel: “The country’s demographics look bad — too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not enough secular Jews.” Normally, when someone looks at a country’s ethnic makeup and identifies the “problem” as the proliferation of everyone except his own kind, the very reasonable obvious objections will be made across the board.

Miller’s line did not engender this outrage, because it was aimed at Haredim, to which the normal rules of civility do not apply in the American media. But he came in for a walloping from what may seem an unlikely source: David Landau. Landau, the former editor of Haaretz, has made shockingly offensive comments about Israel, and is currently Israel correspondent for The Economist, a magazine whose Israel coverage includes just this type of casual bigotry toward the Haredim. (Three weeks ago, the magazine wrote that “the hallmark of haredism is intolerance.”) But Landau was so upset by Miller’s apparent ignorance that he rose to a quite effusive defense of the Haredim in an interview with his former newspaper:

“I’m sitting here and thinking to myself, ‘Could a non-Jewish person have written that?’” asks Landau. “Would Aaron David Miller have written in The New York Times that the demographics in Turkey look bad — too many veiled women and not enough secular Turks?’ Could he get away with writing that? I feel like saying to him, ‘Tell me, have you bothered checking the demographics of the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio, where you come from? Today, 49 percent of the Jewish children in New York are Haredi, so Aaron David Miller has to look in his own backyard before he makes this sort of statement. This is the kind of know-it-all elitism that has been so characteristic of the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Israeli elite for so long. It’s pathetic, and if in this Economist piece, I’ve succeeded in making six people of consequence rethink Jewish demographics, then the whole thing was worth it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to blur the distinctions between Haredim and Orthodox Zionists, maintains Landau, has contributed enormously to his political success. “The fact that it’s been so easy for Bibi to lump together all the Haredi parties with the settlers and make them the bulwark of his coalition — it’s remarkable when you think about it. Has anyone thought about the fact that there are really no Haredim in the West Bank? That in 2005 the Haredim joined Sharon’s government with the full knowledge that this would enable him to move ahead with the disengagement from Gaza? Why hasn’t that left an impact on people?”

Landau makes an important point: identifying Haredim with religious fanaticism shows a disturbing lack of basic knowledge about both Judaism and the state of Israel. Are there incidents of intolerance from the Haredim? Indeed there are, though not on the scale of the hateful blacklisting, threats of violence, and near riot that took place in Tel Aviv when some Chabadniks tried to move into a secular neighborhood.

In truth, neither the yeshiva students nor the secular Jews are accurately represented by the few among them who misbehave. And American Jews probably hope that Israelis don’t think Miller is representative of the level of knowledge and engagement of the Diaspora.

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Israel’s Democratic Revolution

As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.

You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.

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As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.

You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.

The exclusion of the non-Jewish and Haredi minorities from the ideal of national service is a wound that has steadily torn at Israel’s national fabric for decades. The exclusions came about for different reasons: Arabs were seen – for reason – as holding conflicting loyalties that would make military service not possible for most. The Haredi exclusion (ostensibly for yeshiva students alone) was born of Israel’s first foray into coalition politics, a price demanded by the Haredi political parties the Labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion needed to form a government that would not include his rivals on the Revisionist right.

Over time, both of the exclusions have grown untenable, also for their own reasons. While the Druze community has taken on military service for decades, and it is an option at least theoretically open to any Israeli Arab, the failure of the majority of the Arab minority to participate has served as a barrier to their integration into Israeli society, and so has likely played its role in the increased radicalization of Israeli Arab political leadership in the past decade.

For the Haredim, an exclusion that once applied to a few hundred has grown to absolve as many as 60,000 young men of draftable age a year, making the draft exemption, along with the lack of full Haredi workforce participation and explosive demographic growth, a potent symbol of the growing unequal burden carried by the non-Haredi Jewish majority.

The one-state demographic doomsayers to the side, the combination of the increased alienation from the state on the part of its largest non-Jewish minority and its fastest growing Jewish sector has recently felt like the most pressing state crisis for many Israelis. As writers like Daniel Gordis have long been pointing out, it is this future, of a decreasing Zionist majority pinned between populations that do not contribute to and actively draw resources from the Jewish state, that has seemed most frightening and disastrous, in particular because solving it requires the coalescence of the fractured parties representing the Zionist majority who have proven themselves adept at avoiding the problem for decades.

All of this is reason to applaud the current horse-trading between these groups in the Knesset. No doubt whatever law that emerges will be far from perfect. It is also far from clear a significant reform will in fact ultimately be passed.

But the historic coalition formed this past spring by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of his former opposition Shaul Mofaz set the stage for the opportunity. Waged in Israel’s characteristically combative democratic style, the government’s potential passage of a new draft law that would incorporate all of Israel’s citizens into some form of national service represents a potential refounding of the state as one whose burdens and privileges are a burden shared equally by all.

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Israel Continues to Politically Inspire

In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

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In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

The most important issue the new super coalition government headed by Likud and Kadima (the largest party in the current government by seats) allows Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to confront is the draft exemption for haredi youth. Currently known as the Tal Law, it is an element of a range of concessions first made by David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) with religious parties that enabled the dominant Israeli left to form a government without including their rivals on the right. The basic premise of the provision is that 18-year-old Jewish males who would normally be eligible for conscription into the Israeli army can receive an exemption if they are studying in a religious yeshiva.

At the time the original deal was struck, the law exempted only around 400 people. Ben-Gurion was also likely comforted by his belief in the eventual extinction of traditional religious life in the new Jewish state, which would over time make the issue moot.

On this point however he proved shortsighted, as the exempted population has grown to now around 60,000. Moreover, haredi Jews make up an increasing percentage of Israeli society that remains in many ways disconnected from the larger public, precisely because they do not participate in the Israeli-identity forming experience of IDF service. Despite a growing recognition that the exemption is no longer tenable (and even after the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decision that the law in its current form is unconstitutional) there was widespread feeling the situation could not be changed, because to do so would require the main competing political factions to partner together, thereby forming a government that could exclude the still relatively small religious parties and make changes to the exemption whether or not they approve.

This has created a sense of impending doom in the country, as it seemed destined to watch a growing haredi population capture ever larger shares of government support without contributing to or sharing in the burdens of the larger society.

The coalition deal is a big deal because it potentially breaks that doom. There is now a sufficiently large coalition that it can pass legislation without any support from religious parties. In fact, the three largest parties (Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beitenu, which has gained in support in part because of its focus on changing the draft exemption) now have a majority on their own.

From a country with its own intractable problems that seem insolvable due to the inability of the two major political parties to work substantively together, the example set last night by Israel’s leaders should inspire.

No doubt there are less then pristine factors at play. Shaul Mofaz, Kadima’s leader, delays impending electoral calamity by entering the government. Netanyahu for his part delays the entrance of Yair Lapid, a potential rival, to the Knesset. One cannot hope for politics to be entirely noble.

Nevertheless, American Jews, Americans, and the West should take note and find inspiration in Israel’s demonstration today that no political problem does not have its solution.

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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

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Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.

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