In a speech that sparked condemnations from the left, right and center, Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, ended speculation as to whether he would support a minority government that would end the country’s coalition crisis.
Had Lieberman decided to throw in his lot with Benny Gantz and the Blue and White Party, the result would have been a government that would have depended on the votes of the Joint List—the coalition of Arab political parties—to survive. He would have savored the opportunity to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been the entire point of all the maneuvering he has been done for the past year. Aligning himself with a faction that he has always denounced as a subversive “fifth column” seeking to destroy the Jewish state, however, was too high a price to pay.
That means Israelis will likely be forced to head to the polls for the third time within a year sometime next spring. To justify his decision, Lieberman issued a statement that repeated his past denunciations of the Arab parties. But he also said his party would no longer serve with religious parties.
His answer was to claim that the haredim and their political representatives were just as anti-Zionist as the Arabs. He blasted their efforts to both exempt their young men from serving in the military and to siphon portions of the national budget into their schools and other institutions.
Lieberman is not alone in lamenting the outsized influence of the haredim.
The ultra-Orthodox domination of Israeli life infuriates Diaspora Jews, who want the State of Israel to adopt religious pluralism, as well as to give the non-Orthodox equal rights at the Western Wall.
Many serious thinkers have long considered that having a large and growing portion of the population not fully participating in the work force—as is the case with many haredi men who study in yeshivahs, whether or not they are serious scholars—as well as not serving in the army constitutes an existential threat to Israel’s future.
The rabbinate’s control over life-cycle events is also lamented by a large majority of Israelis from all walks of life. That’s why denouncing the haredim has always been political gold for Israeli politicians. Lieberman gained three Knesset seats in the September election as a result of his decision to abandon Netanyahu so as to avoid serving with his previous ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
But the notion that these are just two sides of the same anti-Zionist coin doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Many on the Israeli left, as well as liberal Americans, are deeply angered by Netanyahu’s repeated talk of the Arabs’ Joint List as enemies of Israel, which Lieberman echoed in his remarks. They consider it to be racist.
But it’s not slander to speak of the Joint List as anti-Zionist and even to suggest that its activists sympathize with the forces trying to destroy Israel.
The Joint List is composed of four parties.
Hadash is Israel’s Communist Party. Balad is a secular pan-Arab nationalist party. The United Arab List, or Ra’am, is Islamist and endorses policies somewhat akin to those of Hamas. Ta’al is also Arab nationalist and secular. All seek the elimination of a Jewish state and oppose its measures of self-defense.
Their presence in the Knesset is testimony to the fact that Israel is a democracy where all are equal under the law, rather than the “apartheid state” slander that the BDS movement promotes. But they don’t so much represent the interests of Israeli-Arab voters as they do the hope that the one Jewish state on the planet will be eliminated.
Rhetoric from Netanyahu and Lieberman may seem over the top. Still, they are not wrong to regard these parties as having a purpose that is antithetical to the interests of the state. Including them in a government or even allowing them to decide its fate from outside the cabinet would be a mistake.
But to put the haredim—no matter how much they and the rabbinate may be rightly resented—in the same category is not accurate.
Branding all haredi Jews as being as anti-Zionist as the Arabs is wrong. Some do support Israel and its institutions. Only a small minority, such as those who back the Satmar sect or the even more extreme Neturei Karta, actively seeks the state’s end and will have nothing to do with it.
Other haredim actively oppose secular Zionism and don’t want their children to serve in the army, but also have a pragmatic point of view about Israel and seek to influence its policies by taking part in government. The Agudat Yisrael Party represents the interests of such Jews in the Knesset. But to describe their complicated feelings about the state as morally equivalent to Arabs who identify with Israel’s enemies is mistaken.
Such characterizations of the other haredi party in the Knesset are even more misleading. Shas, which depends on the support of Mizrahi Jews who trace their origins to the Arab world rather than to Eastern Europe, is officially Zionist, which befits the nationalist leanings of their voters. Like Agudat Yisrael, they support exemptions from army service and draining the treasury to fill the coffers of their own institutions. But they also support the state.
Many Israelis would welcome a government that would constrain the power of the ultra-Orthodox. But as long as security issues continue to dominate the country’s agenda, right-wing Israelis will prefer an alliance with the haredim to one with Blue and White or left-wing parties.
In a third election, Likud might lose more seats, and Lieberman might be able to form a coalition with Gantz without being dependent on anti-Zionist Arab votes. Even if you sympathize with his goal, lumping in the haredim with forces actively seeking Israel’s destruction is neither fair nor accurate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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