On March 17, 1999, Aryeh Deri was convicted in a Jerusalem court of five criminal offences, among them fraud, accepting bribes, and breach of trust. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
A young, charismatic politician who had immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a child, Deri was Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox, and determined to lead a political revolution. His core issue was that Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin be allowed to participate equally in the making of state policy. No more second-class status. No more condescension from the dominant religious force: Ashkenazi Jews.
As a Sephardic graduate of the Haredi yeshiva system in Israel, Deri was an anomaly (since Haredi Jews originated in Lithuania). The term “Haredi” (meaning “a trembler” before God) is more broadly used today to describe ultra-Orthodox Israelis who share a particular pedagogy and way of life. (They are different from Hasidim, who encourage an earthier spiritualism and mysticism in religious observance.)
Every facet of Haredi daily life is highly regulated. Boys and girls are separated by gender in all activities from a very young age. Each boy, no matter his intellectual ability, is expected to sit and learn Torah, often up to 12 hours each day. Physical activity is neither valued nor encouraged. Nor are core state curricula such as the study of English, math, and science, because they are seen as detracting from the enhancement of Jewish religious knowledge. Girls are considered to be of lesser intellectual ability and status, so it is fine for them to squander time on the secular subjects. And they do.
In Haredi society, young women matriculate at a rate of approximately 50 percent, while only 14 percent of their male counterparts graduate. This disparity is a source of pride in the Haredi community, as it frees the men to study full-time, with many doing so well into their 30s and 40s. While Haredi women often have more than eight children, 75 percent work outside the home (compared with 50 percent of men) and do pretty much everything required to raise a family. These “superwomen” free their spouses to study Torah full-time. That course of study also means that they are exempted automatically from serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Prior to 1948, the overwhelming majority of immigrants to British Mandatory Palestine (and the Ottoman Empire before WWI) were from Eastern Europe and stoked on variations of leftish, collectivist, secularist ideologies. Institutions established in the pre-state era became the foundations of Israel and reflected the secular European bias of the early settlers.
There had always been a small, ultra-Orthodox presence in the region, predating the more modern interest in ingathering the Jewish exiles who had dispersed two millennia earlier. The Zionist dream, intoned each year at the Passover table to celebrate “next year in Jerusalem,” was fueled by the increasingly vicious anti-Semitism in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust.
After the Shoah, among the new arrivals to British Mandatory Palestine was a small number of ultra-Orthodox whose prewar population had been particularly ravaged. In Europe, the Haredim and Hasidim had tended to be poorer than other Jews, less assimilated, and dressed distinctively, which made them early and easy targets for Nazis and collaborators.
Even the most hardened of the secular “new Jews” of Palestine were moved by the circumstances of the ultra-Orthodox as well as their devotion to Jewish study. As Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion thought it prudent to nurture a small cadre of Torah scholars to preserve and continue Jewish learning and, pragmatically, to avoid exacerbating internecine Jewish conflict. Ben-Gurion worried that if he did not present a united front (at least among Jews) to the rest of the world, the internal dissent would be used as an excuse to withhold international support for the fledgling state.
When presented with a surprising request by the leader of the tiny Haredi community, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (known by his pen name, the “Chazan Ish”), Ben-Gurion inadvertently laid the foundation of what has become the most divisive, intractable issue in Israel today.
Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt full-time yeshiva students immersed in Torah study from military service in return for the Chazan Ish’s pledge to support the state—or, rather, not publicly oppose it. (Its creation was opposed by other Orthodox Jews who believed that the state should not come into being until the arrival of the Messiah, and that any Jewish state had to be run according to the rules of the Torah.) At the time, there were only 400 such yeshiva students. Ben-Gurion, among others, was certain that after a few years of living a fully emancipated life in the modern state, these young men would cast off the desk-bound culture of the Old Country, put on sandals and shorts, pick up a hoe, and participate fully in the reborn state.
The dispensation Ben-Gurion accorded the 400 young men in 1948 was thus intended to be a temporary measure. But now, seven decades later, there are more than 130,000 men studying Torah full-time—an outcome no one in the early years anticipated.
As Asaf Malchi, researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s ultra-Orthodox program, wrote recently: “After about a decade [from 1948], Ben-Gurion himself began to express doubts about the exemption, and the lack of equity of an arrangement that differentiated between yeshiva students ‘sacrificing themselves for the study of Torah’ and other Jewish youths who are literally laying down their lives in defence of the state.”
Still, the entente prevailed (more or less) until 1977, when the newly elected government led by Menachem Begin canceled the quota system and extended a service exemption to an expanded class of individuals on the basis that, as is sometimes said, “Torah study is their occupation.” Funds required to support a rapidly growing parallel education system increased for decades.
Yeshiva students were also forbidden by law from working, thus honoring and allowing full-time devotion to Torah study. In addition to entrenching poverty and further isolating the Haredi community, this national generosity also churned the seething resentment of a majority of Israelis, whose children continued to serve in the military.
When Deri was convicted in 1999, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in Israel, declared: “He is innocent.” In doing so, Rav Yosef undermined the authority and respect of the judicial system, voicing aloud what many in his community believed to be true: that the elitist Europeans, secular and Orthodox, rejected and derided “them” for being of primitive and inferior intellectual origins.
The prosecution of Deri was not justice. It was just the perpetuation of Ashkenaz discrimination against Sephardic Jews. The system, he signaled, was rigged.
A revered leader, Rav Yosef founded the Shas political party in 1984, with a mandate to challenge policies and attitudes that institutionalized Sephardic inferiority and marginalized their influence in and potential effect on the broader society. His vision, combined with Deri’s political effectiveness, revolutionized Israeli politics.
There is more than a kernel of truth in the grievances of the non-Ashkenaz population of Israel, who today constitute the majority of the Jewish population in the country. Most of the early waves of immigrants to the territory that is now modern Israel arrived beginning in the 1880s from Russia, Poland, and other Eastern and Central European countries. They were motivated to escape grinding poverty, oppression, and murderous pogroms. They were also desperate to shake off the yoke of conformity imposed by religious observance. In Europe, even “assimilated” Jews were denigrated and regarded as “different,” causing Theodor Herzl, the patrician Viennese scholar and philosophical leader of modern Zionism, to conclude that only in a Jewish state could the Jews be “normal.” They would cease to be the “other.”
What Herzl clearly did not contemplate was an influx of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews from North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East streaming in from the 1930s through the 1950s. Collectively, they were less educated and more traditional than the Ashkenazim. No period of enlightenment had yet revolutionized their countries of origin. The Israeli leadership assumed that the newcomers would slip into the paradigm of the leftist Zionist enterprise, unquestioningly and gratefully.
Many Sephardim were relegated to scrappy development towns, slum-like neighborhoods, and a life of low expectations. The cream of society—the Ashkenaz—dominated Israel through their control of the mighty labor unions, kibbutz system, the military, and key economic and social institutions, including government.
Generally speaking, ultra-Orthodox Sephardim were less stringent and harsh in their religious practice. Their relaxed approach was abhorrent to the Haredim, who made no secret of their disdain, questioning the legitimacy of many Sephardic traditions.
And then along came Deri: Sephardic, bold, and determined to take his seat at “the” table. He was celebrated as a fresh face for the ultra-Orthodox, promising a more confident and hopeful way forward. He infused Sephardim with pride and expectations above their rung on the social ladder. The “system” was going to include and represent them from now on, not just the elitist Jews from Europe.
As Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute explains: “The ultra-Orthodox community trusts its leaders, not the court [an arm of the state]. Theirs is an enclave culture. The most important thing is the enclave itself.”
Which explains why, when released from prison and following his seven-year ban from political activity, Deri was embraced by Rav Yosef and, improbably, crowned the Shas Party leader again.
Fast-forward to January 2013, when the ex-broadcaster Yair Lapid’s newly formed Yesh Atid party swept 19 of 120 Knesset seats in the election, a stunning accomplishment. Lapid called for integrating Haredim into all aspects of civilian life, particularly the army and workforce. His message resonated.
Two years later, Lapid’s party shrank to 11 Knesset seats. In the run-up to the April 9 elections in Israel this year, Lapid joined forces with the Blue and White Party of former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz to present a unified centrist alternative to the Likud-led, Haredi-backed coalition that seemed poised for victory.
Early on the morning of April 10, the election results were in: Likud commanded 35 seats plus an additional 30 from various right-wing parties, enough to put them over the top with a 65-mandate majority.
Deri’s Shas Party commanded eight Knesset seats. Its Ashkenaz counterpart, the United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ), won seven seats under the leadership of Rabbi Yakov Litzman. Shas is now a major power broker among ultra-Orthodox politicians, outnumbering the once-mighty Ashkenaz.
Together, Shas and UTJ are a formidable political force, controlling the ultra-Orthodox vote in Israel—a rapidly growing cohort that is locked in a conflict with the modern state.
By law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had six weeks to negotiate terms with his potential coalition partners, which he seemed in no hurry to do. April and May are a special time of year in Israel. The calendar is punctuated by a string of holidays and solemn commemorative ceremonies, among them days memorializing Holocaust victims and Israel’s fallen in combat and terror attacks. Netanyahu seemed more focused on the ceremonial aspects of his position than the brass-knuckled coalition negotiations. He was also distracted by his personal legal issues.
Furthermore, he seemed not to take seriously the position of Avigdor Lieberman, his one-time deputy and now sworn enemy (as is true of so many of Netanyahu’s former deputies). Shas and UTJ had pledged their support immediately, as had the Union of Right Wing Parties. Lieberman is head of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, which controls five seats. Without his support, the Netanyahu coalition would top out at 60 seats, one short of a majority.
Originally from Moldova, Lieberman is a secularist whose base is made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. His supporters tend to be right-wing but secular and unsympathetic to the entitlements enjoyed by the Haredi population.
Throughout the election campaign and negotiation period, Lieberman was clear and consistent. He would support the Likud coalition only if the “Draft Law” he had negotiated during his tenure as Minister of Defense (2016–18) with Likud and the Haredi political leaders were passed, unchanged. The proposed law, in fact, would impose very modest enlistment quotas for Haredi men. But it was designed to serve as a signal to the ultra-Orthodox, and the nation, that the status quo could not and would not continue indefinitely.
Netanyahu and the Haredim overestimated their negotiating position and fatally underestimated Lieberman’s resolve. Until 48 hours before the expiry of the negotiation period, they exuded self-assurance and confidence that Lieberman would capitulate and accede to what they described as a “compromise” regarding the Draft Law.
Their proposed “compromise,” however, was anything but. It provided that the Draft Bill, in its current form, would go to the Knesset for First Reading. This meant it would simply be introduced formally as draft legislation. Following the First Reading, there are typically committee hearings, discussions, and modifications, before final passage of the bill as legislation.
The terms of the “compromise” were really a sneaky deception. After First Reading, any bill may just be shelved, never to see the light of day. The idea, it appeared, was to make it possible for Lieberman to tell his people that he had won the right to introduce the Draft Bill at the Knesset. At the same time, the Haredim could tell their people they had made sure it wouldn’t pass. And Bibi would have his coalition. By the time this all would go down, the expectation, clearly, would be that the public would have forgotten.
Lieberman refused to go along with the conceit. His new mantra: “We support a Jewish state, not a halachic (Torah law) one.” As the deadline neared, Netanyahu seemed to panic. News reports had him meeting through the last night with the leader of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, offering him a slate of high-profile cabinet positions in return for his support. Litzman and Deri were castigating Lieberman openly for being intransigent and unwilling to “compromise.”
Suddenly, the pundits and analysts who had been assuring the nation that Lieberman was just being dramatic and would fold at the last minute were lauding his steely resolve and principled stand.
At approximately 11:45 p.m. on May 30, a grim Netanyahu entered the Knesset chamber ahead of the historic, unprecedented vote to dissolve a Knesset before it had even formed a governing coalition. He raged at Lieberman for forcing the public to finance and go through another election unnecessarily, attributing the fiasco solely to Lieberman’s intransigence. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution vote, Netanyahu hurled what for him is the ultimate insult. He called Lieberman a “leftist” determined to sabotage any right-wing government. In light of Bibi’s Hail Mary pass at Labour leader Avi Gabbay to join his coalition, the charge was more than a little ironic.
Following the dissolution of the Knesset, Litzman said little, but Deri was apoplectic. He lashed out at Lieberman for attempting to “extort” the ultra-Orthodox parties, constantly changing and increasing his “delusional demands” to support the coalition. Curiously, though, Deri provided no particulars regarding Lieberman’s extreme allegations.
Meanwhile, Lieberman kept his powder dry, staying on message. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution and the scheduling of a new election in September, polls suggested he would take nine seats rather than five. Many now speculate that he could win double-digit support in the September elections. As a Moroccan acquaintance remarked following the showdown: “Lieberman represents far more than five mandates now. He represents the majority on one of the most important issues in this country.”
The week after, various news outlets reported that United Torah Judaism had demanded legislation that would allow public events to be held in places where gender segregation would be imposed by law. Netanyahu denied that this was being considered seriously, downplaying it by saying it was only a negotiating position. His credibility on these matters, however, has been severely compromised.
Speaking over late-afternoon tea 10 days before the Knesset dissolution, Lapid expressed deep concern regarding the way in which Netanyahu was pandering to Haredim and others, calling it “a direct attack on the soul of the nation.” At that stage, there remained a strong expectation that a right-wing coalition would prevail and a much fainter hope that a last-minute deal would materialize in which Likud would join with Lapid’s Blue and White Party in what would have amounted to a unity government. But Lapid cautioned at the time that Netanyahu’s ambition had led him to do and promise things that crossed his own “personal boundaries. Things he believed in.”
He said he worried about the erosion of fundamental democratic norms, which are simply not as important to the Haredim as they are to the majority of Israelis. In order to ensure Haredi political support, Lapid feared, Netanyahu was prepared to chip away at core democratic institutions, such as the independent judiciary or the universal draft.
“Haredi politicians see the country as forcing things upon them,” Lapid told me, “as a body that provides free services as opposed to something that we have in common.”
In so saying, Lapid was describing a common Haredi perspective voiced authoritatively by the Jerusalem businessman Eli Palay. The head of a successful publication enterprise for the Haredi community, Palay explains his twin loves for Haredi society and Israeli identity as the motivator for his establishment six years ago of the Haredi Public Policy Institute. It is intended to explain Haredi culture and way of life to others and represent the Haredi viewpoint in public-policy discussions.
When it comes to the draft, however, his position is unflinching; he sees it as a form of social engineering and coercion, not a matter of security.
“We don’t believe in serving the state [in this way],” he explains. “We don’t buy it. This is about ‘equality,’ this notion of serving the state. What are we, Communists?”
Palay is contemptuous of what he regards as a secular assault on the Haredi way of life. He believes that Lapid and others are using the draft issue as an “excuse” to continue to treat Haredim as “second-class citizens.”
Democracy and the significance of shared state values are far less important in Haredi culture than in modern Orthodox, traditional, or secular communities in Israel. They believe that Torah learning should take precedence over shared democratic commitments. As one Haredi woman bluntly stated in conversation recently: “The army is not what preserves this country, it is the prayer and study of the Torah scholars. Haredim are the solution to the problem. It is impossible to articulate the value of learning Torah to someone who doesn’t ascribe to it.”
And therein lies the plainest expression of the impasse and formidable challenge facing Israeli political leaders: to engage an alienated and powerful segment of the population to participate fully in the responsibilities and privilege of living in a democracy.
Non-Haredi Israelis see the present with significant trepidation, never mind the future. The Haredi population stands at 12 percent currently and is projected to grow to 15 percent by 2027. The burden to be placed on the rest of the population is not only inequitable but financially and ethically unsustainable. The Haredim seem emboldened to use the power vested in them by the structure, and flaws, of Israeli democracy to continue on this escalating collision course with the majority of Israeli society—an intra-Jewish conflict of a magnitude perhaps unmatched since the destruction of the Second Temple.