The ultra-Orthodox community is now in the ascendancy
For the past few months, the world has watched as Israel has faced mounting domestic turmoil. On the face of it, the mass protest movement that has formed in response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is aimed at preventing an overhaul of the court system that seeks to reform the traditionally powerful Israeli judiciary. But there is a much deeper trend at play: the electoral rise of the country’s ultra-Orthodox population.
The question of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredim” in Hebrew, has long been the third rail of Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox community has traditionally served as a stop-gap in Israeli governing coalitions, presenting as a willing quid-pro-quo partner that could fill out a coalition with the requisite seats needed to form a government. The exchange was simple: the coalition takes care of a few key demands by ultra-Orthodox parties, like the funding of state-sponsored yeshivas or centres of religious study, and the ultra-Orthodox parties offer a willing vote on most issues.
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This was even the case with Netanyahu’s government, whose Knesset Speaker, Amir Ohana, is openly gay (ultra-Orthodox members of the administration walked out during his swearing-in). But with 18 of the current government’s 64 seats coming from ultra-Orthodox parties — and another 13 coming from religious Right-wing parties — we are witnessing a major shift. For the first time, Israel’s secular Left has seen its deepest demographic fears spring to life.
With ultra-Orthodox birthrates at nearly seven births per woman — nearly triple that of secular Israelis — electoral supremacy by Israel’s religious faction is a virtual foregone conclusion. While the secular Left has known this for some time, never before has it been a political reality. Now it is.
This marks a significant sea change. For most of the past 70 years, Israel’s Labor Party ruled the country politically, economically and culturally. Its most cherished institutions, including the IDF, were dominated by Labor. This dominance began to fracture in the years after the First Intifada, and finally shattered with Labor dropping from a major party to a political afterthought. It now has a pitiful four seats in the Knesset. The greatest strength of the secular Left, its unity, was lost.
For most secular Israelis, the court represents the last bulwark against what they see as a complete re-writing of the state’s national code by religious voters. Since the days of Aharon Barak, Israel’s famously activist former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Israel’s judiciary has not been shy about striking down laws passed by the Knesset.
The judicial reforms will shift the balance of power markedly in favour of the legislature. But what this really means is that the shift could put the country’s politics — as well as the cultural and economic conditions that result from it — in the hands of religious and nationalist parties.
This is enough of an incentive to keep hundreds of thousands of mostly secular Israelis on the streets for nearly a year. And, with the resignation of Netanyahu’s (secular) defence minister, it might even topple the government. That may result in the judicial reforms being postponed or even completely derailed, but it will do nothing to stem the rising tide of religious voters.
But secular Israelis, who still comprise about 45% of the total population, will not helplessly stand by as this long-term trend unfolds. Just as ultra-Orthodox parties were for decades willing to put aside differences, and even principles, in favour of creating a united voting bloc, it’s possible we will see a political realignment that shifts the traditional political axis that, since the Oslo Accords, has been mostly divided along the Palestinian issue.
Instead, Israel is likely to see the rise of a new axis focused on religious-secular issues that will unite moderate and hard left, centrist and even right-of-centre secular Israelis under the banner of a new resistance to religionisation of the state. Precisely by making this leap to the centre, the Israeli Left may reemerge as a political force. It’s a watershed moment, with secular Israelis seeing the protest movement as proof that, when politically unified, their demographic strength may remain intact.