Israel's Ruling Coalition Turns Toward TheocracyRoundup
tags: Israel, Zionism, Benjamin Netanyahu, fundamentalism
Bernard Avishai teaches political economy at Dartmouth and is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism,” “The Hebrew Republic,” and “Promiscuous,” among other books. He was selected as a Guggenheim fellow in 1987.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government, which was sworn in last week, is routinely referred to as “extreme right,” but this tortures the meaning of conservatism in a democracy. Thirty-two of the coalition’s members in the Knesset (out of a hundred and twenty parliamentary seats) are disciples of so-called religious parties, the political arms of theocratic communities. These parties, and factions of parties, can be divided into three groups: The largest alliance, with fourteen seats, is religious Zionism, whose forebears were preoccupied with preserving the rabbinic privileges afforded by the British Mandate in the new state of Israel—such as supervision over marriage, burial, conversion, and dietary laws, and state-supported religious schools—but which, since 1967, has been overtaken by the messianic claims of West Bank settlers. The Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, with seven seats, represent self-segregating communities living mainly in and around Jerusalem. Shas, with eleven seats, are a populist, anti-élite party of Orthodox Mizrahi immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, who tend to be poorer and less educated.
In recent years, the three groups have meshed ideologically into the “national camp,” adhering in particular to the ultranationalist, Greater Israel vision of the religious-Zionist alliance: prohibiting the surrender of Biblically promised land, and moving the state further toward Orthodox law. Indeed, the other, anchoring half of the government majority, Netanyahu’s Likud party, includes many rank-and-file members who also openly identify with religious Zionism. (The new minister of environmental protection, Idit Silman, is a former backbencher of a religious-Zionist party who jumped to the Likud last summer, abandoning the “change government” of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, thereby helping to bring it down.)
So, at least half of the coalition government cannot be said to be on the right in any ordinary sense, because its leaders and followers aren’t really committed to the secular social contract, founded on scientific skepticism and liberal norms, that even Zionist rightists including Vladimir Jabotinsky embraced. A 2016 Pew study found that eighty-nine per cent of Haredi, and sixty-five percent of dati—others who feel themselves governed by Jewish ritual law and practice, or Halacha—believe that, if the choice is between democratic principles or Halacha, the latter should “take priority.” Yair Nehorai, a former acolyte of religious Zionism, and the author of “The Third Revolution,” a book documenting the teachings of the rabbinic mentors of the messianic movement, believes that these attitudes amount to a novel politicized Jewish creed, advanced by “Jewist” activists who, in pressing for a Halachic state, are equivalent to “Islamist” activists who advocate for Muslim governmental supremacy and Sharia law. “Rabbi Eliezer Sadan, a renowned Israel Prize winner, set up a program in 1998 that’s prepared twenty-five hundred young men for the military—half of whom became officers, even senior officers,” Nehorai told me. “My book quotes him from 2017 preaching that the ‘Torah is our constitution,’ and the nation, ‘living in its land,’ should conduct its life on the basis of ‘divine precepts.’ ”
Accordingly, the coalition wasted little time trying to “land a knockout to liberal-democratic Israel,” as the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, put it. The new Knesset was sworn in on November 16th, two weeks after the election and more than a month before Netanyahu presented his government. The coalition rushed to use its fresh majority to amend various laws and ordinances, including the nation’s Basic Law—a set of quasi-constitutional provisions that define government functions and guide the High Court of Justice, Israel’s Supreme Court. Alarmingly, Netanyahu agreed to appoint as national-security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a lawyer and a settler zealot who is the leader of a religious-Zionist group called Jewish Power, and who has been charged more than fifty times by the justice system (he says he was exonerated forty-six times). He has been convicted for incitement to racism and support for a Jewish terrorist organization—a record that caused the army to refuse his induction. Ben Gvir also champions unrestricted Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem. By precedent, the Islamic authorities who administer the Haram’s ancient mosques have allowed Jews to visit the Mount, but not to establish prayer groups there. The Border Police are routinely tasked with keeping order at the site. But, as of a Knesset vote last month, which changed the law governing the administration of the national police, the border force is now under the direct supervision of the national-security minister—Ben Gvir—rather than the independent commissioner of police. The coalition also changed Basic Law to remove the supervision of the civil administration in the occupied territories from the minister of defense, and created a minister in the defense ministry to do the job. It handed that post to another religious-Zionist leader of the settler movement, Bezalel Smotrich, who is also the designated finance minister.
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