Can the Haredi parties afford a long stay in the opposition?

The ultra-Orthodox community depends on government largesse; the narrow coalition needs Shas and United Torah Judaism to assure its hold on power. So why won’t they work together?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

UTJ leader Moshe Gafni (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri at a press conference at the Knesset, June 8, 2021, denouncing Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett and his "change government" colleagues.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
UTJ leader Moshe Gafni (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri at a press conference at the Knesset, June 8, 2021, denouncing Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett and his "change government" colleagues. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties want nothing to do with the new government, nothing at all. They’ve been exceedingly clear on that point — so clear and so vehement and so consistent that some have begun to wonder if they aren’t protesting a bit too much.

On June 8, the day after the coalition agreements underpinning the new government became public, Haredi MKs convened a press conference at the Knesset. The rhetoric was dialed up to maximum: “The government headed by [Naftali] Bennett is going to destroy and demolish all that we have defended together for 70 years,” thundered Shas leader Aryeh Deri.

Referring to Bennett and alternate PM Yair Lapid as “the wicked ones,” United Torah Judaism head Moshe Gafni urged the religious-Zionist community from which most of Bennett’s voters hail to “vomit those people out, let them be excommunicated and banished from among you, remove them from the people of Israel…. We will make heaven and earth quake” against the new government, he vowed.

“Take off your kippa,” another Haredi MK demanded of Israel’s first kippa-wearing premier.

The Haredi parties had found their narrative about the new government, and it wasn’t favorable: Israel’s very identity and character as a Jewish country was under full-fledged assault by a power-hungry clique of treasonous Jews.

That drumbeat begun on June 8 continues unabated two weeks later.

United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni gives a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But no one believes them

But the curious thing about that strange new militancy isn’t that it seemed to come on so suddenly, or that the MKs’ substantive complaints focused almost exclusively on religion-and-state issues — public transportation on the Sabbath or reforms to the state rabbinate — that are far from the minds of most Israelis.

No, the curious thing was that few Israelis are taking the rhetoric seriously.

“They always mock us Haredi parties that in exchange for budgets for the Torah world we’d be willing to enter any government that happens to arise,” Deri complained in his June 8 comments.

He’s right. That’s the general assumption about Haredi parties, which have been part of nearly every coalition, left, right and center, since the 1970s. Deri’s Sephardi-Haredi Shas party sat happily in the Olmert and Rabin governments, while Ashkenazi-Haredi Agudat Israel (half of the combined United Torah Judaism slate) joined the Sharon government in 2005 alongside the Labor party ahead of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, right, speaks to Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri during a meeting with right-wing bloc parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Historically, the Haredi parties largely ignored questions of national security, regional strategy, land or Palestinian independence. Their top priority was always ensuring state funding to their institutions and communities.

That’s no accident. The Israeli Haredi community is deeply dependent on state funding, with large families and high rates of nonparticipation in the workforce, especially among men who choose to study in yeshiva full time.

Each time Shas and UTJ enter into coalition talks, a great deal is at stake for their constituents. Roughly 1.3 billion shekels ($400 million) in state funding goes to their yeshivas each year and billions more to the vast slew of Haredi charities, school networks and community institutions.

Some of it is earmarked explicitly for Haredim, but a great deal isn’t. Tax benefits for households with one working adult, for example, aren’t marked “Haredi” in the state budget, but the beneficiaries are overwhelmingly from the community. It’s a similar story with child subsidies, “cultural events” budgets handed to municipalities by the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, and on and on; the total funding runs into several billion shekels annually. Haredi society could scarcely maintain itself without it.

And a great deal of that vital funding may now be threatened as Shas and UTJ find themselves in the opposition while across the aisle the Finance Ministry and Knesset Finance Committee came under the control of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party.

Illustrative — A lesson at Ateret Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem, November 19, 2019 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The last time the Haredim went to the opposition, in 2013, allocations to Haredi institutions and households were slashed mercilessly by then-finance minister Yair Lapid (helped by then-economy minister Naftali Bennett). Spending for yeshivas was cut in half, from about a billion shekels ($310 million) in 2012 to less than half a billion in 2013.

But even that painful experience was only a pale shadow next to the trauma inflicted by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2003 Sharon government. Secularist Shinui, led by Yair Lapid’s father Tommy, pushed the Haredi parties out of that government. Netanyahu, the finance minister at the time, launched a massive program of cutbacks in government spending in an effort to climb out of the recession that followed the Second Intifada.

Powerless in the opposition, the Haredi parties could only watch as child subsidies, a major source of income for a large part of the Haredi population, were cut so deeply that many households lost thousands of shekels per month in income, driving a decline in the Haredi birthrate in the ensuing years as families reconsidered how many children they could afford.

Elections, as they say, have consequences.

Haredi children in Jerusalem. (photo credit: David Vaaknin/Flash90)
Haredi children in Jerusalem. (David Vaaknin/Flash90)

For all Deri’s bluster and Gafni’s bravado, it’s hard to imagine the Haredi parties lasting very long in the opposition. The danger to their community is too great.

Hedging their bets

And, indeed, even as Haredi politicians showboated their disdain for the new government over the past two weeks, other centers of Haredi influence have begun to beat a political path into the new coalition.

In comments conveniently leaked to the Kan public broadcaster for a Monday news report, Yanki Kanievsky, grandson and gatekeeper for Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the most influential sage in Israel’s Ashkenazi-Haredi community, explained that the “real reason” the Haredi parties are not in the new coalition “is that no one offered it to us. That’s the real answer, and I’m saying that as someone who was a bit involved.

“They never came and said, ‘Come be with us in the government and we promise you [things],’” Kanievsky explained in the leaked recording.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson Yaakov (Yanki) Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

That’s no accident, he went on. “That was part of the point: That the Haredim won’t be inside.”

And in case anyone missed the point: “It should be clear, the rabbi [Kanievsky] has no problem with left-right. The rabbi is on these matters [i.e., the Palestinian/settlements/security issue] not very right-wing, on the issue of the ‘whole land of Israel’ and things like that, not at all. The opposite. The rabbi always says, ‘Don’t instigate the Arabs, don’t go live in settlements.’”

An unnamed interviewer in the recording then asks, “And if an offer comes to enter the coalition?”

Kanievsky replies, “They’ll have to see what the offer is, what they’re willing to do. Let them have that conversation. Have that conversation.”

Playing hard to get

If the need for coalition funding is so great, and, per Kanievsky, they’re essentially waiting for an offer to join the coalition, why is the rhetoric so heated? Why call Bennett “you piece of nothing,” as Gafni did on Monday? Why speak of “the destroyers of Israel,” a phrase used by several Haredi MKs to describe the new government in recent days?

Sitting from left to right: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, as Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin walk past after a special Knesset plenum session to approve the new government, June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The Haredi parties have two main reasons for joining a ruling coalition. The first and most often cited is the desperately needed funding for education, welfare and a vast array of organizations and charities.

But there’s another reason: Haredi politicians are eager to influence Israeli society and the Israeli public space, to keep their grip on state religious institutions and, in a larger sense, to lay claim to the Israeli story.

The new sentiment is a slow-moving but deep revolution. Haredi society once rejected “secular” Israel out of hand. Slowly, in piecemeal increments, that’s flipped. Most now identify deeply with the state, and as that identification grows, the demand to have a say in shaping Israeli society grows with it.

Studies now show that ordinary Haredim feel a cultural affinity with traditionalist right-wing voters, according to Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program.

“Over 90% say in polls that they see themselves as right-wing,” Malach explains.

“And when you poll the issues, then on every issue on which the left and right divide, [they’re on the right]. On the West Bank, but not only — it’s also on equality for all parts of Israeli society, on issues like the nation-state law [enshrining Israel as a Jewish state] or the High Court’s judicial review — on all these issues the Haredi public and politicians lean right.”

United Torah Judaism chair MK Moshe Gafni and other party members at an election campaign tour in Beit Shemesh, March 14, 2021. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

And that tendency “has only sharpened over the years,” Malach says. “Sociologically — Haredi politicians talk about this — the right tends to be more traditional, so in the tension between a ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ state, the ‘Jewish’ tends to be more important. The Haredi public identifies with the state, and primarily with its ‘Jewish state’ aspect.”

As one UTJ official explained to Channel 12 this week, the Haredi parties’ loyalty to Netanyahu isn’t about Netanyahu. It’s seen in the parties as an alliance with traditionalist Jews, many of them Mizrahi Jews, that they hope will be reciprocated in the future.

Or as Deri put it two weeks ago, “Over many years, and especially in recent years, a true partnership has developed between the Haredi public and the religious, nationalist and Torah-observant segments of the public around the shared values of the love for the land of Israel, strengthening settlement in Judea and Samaria, protecting the Jewish character of the state of Israel and protecting the Torah world, ‘Yavneh and its sages.'”

So it is that anyone who follows the overheated rhetoric of the Haredi MKs in recent days will notice that they have studiously avoided all talk of money and focused instead on the religious culture war.

United Torah Judaism lawmakers, including MK Moshe Gafni, second left, visit Safed Mayor Shuki Ohana for an election campaign event of the Degel Hatorah faction, in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“The Jewish state is in danger,” Deri warned on June 8. “The government led by Bennett will destroy the holy Sabbath, conversion [to Judaism, by opening it to more liberal Orthodox rabbis], the chief rabbinate, kashrut — and worst of all, will tear the Jewish people to shreds, forcing it to return to live as it did in exile, with [separated] communities and genealogy books.”

Religious reforms now, budget talks later

Few of the things Deri is warning about are likely to come true.

It’s true that some deep religion-and-state reforms appear in the coalition agreements with the progressive parties: civil unions that extend to same-sex couples, opening public transportation on the Sabbath, and so on. But under the new coalition’s internal rules, Bennett’s religiously conservative Yamina party holds a veto on such dramatic changes.

Then-interior minister Aryeh Deri attends a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on October 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The gap between rhetoric and reality is enormous. While the Haredi parties gnash their teeth at the prospect of the chief rabbinate’s imminent privatization — “uprooting religion from the state,” Deri groused — the coalition parties themselves not only plan to leave the rabbinate intact, they plan to bolster its ranks. The new Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana of Yamina is hard at work preparing a roster of Orthodox religious-Zionist rabbis he plans to appoint to positions within the system.

Another Yamina proposal would see greater recognition for the kashrut certification of the Orthodox rabbinic organization Tzohar, which is led and staffed by state-appointed rabbis, in the hope that some added measure of competition will help increase efficiency and reduce rampant corruption in the state kashrut apparatus.

The Haredi outcry is unlikely to derail those initiatives. Yamina, still reeling from the right-wing accusation that it brought down a right-wing government, must show its constituents in the religious-Zionist community that it is delivering for them.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (5th left) leads his first cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

It’s a similar situation with Lapid and Liberman, both leading secularist parties whose voters expect liberalizing reforms from the new government, such as the Supermarkets Law that increases the powers granted to individual towns and municipalities to decide how much commerce is allowed to open on the Sabbath.

In other words, as Yanki Kanievsky suggested, the new government itself is in no rush to bring the Haredi parties into the fold, at least not until its leaders believe they have delivered tangible victories for their constituents.

The Haredi parties, too, have good reason to wait out the new government. If they’re lucky, it will fall within a few months from the weight of its internal contradictions. And if it collapses, better that it do so with the Haredi parties on the outside, sending a message to future coalition partners that any government without Haredim is an inherently unstable one.

The Haredim also have some financial breathing room. For six months, the Haredi parties have been working to ensure that their institutions would be eligible for an advance of government subsidies — a hedge against the coalition talks not going their way.

Last December, shortly after his appointment, the Finance Ministry’s Accountant General Yaheli Rotenberg issued a directive at the behest of the Haredi parties that allowed the government to issue advances on funding slated for nonprofits and other institutions that depended on government support.

Lawmakers vote against a bill to delay the budget deadline on December 22, 2020 (Danny Shem Tov/ Knesset Spokesperson)

It was a measure described by the treasury as intended to make it easier for said institutions to survive the economic blows of pandemic closures and to minimize the damage caused by the Knesset’s inability to pass a state budget for 2020 and 2021.

Haredi politicians have made good use of the new rule. By June, the country’s yeshivas had been handed some NIS 110 million ($34 million) in advance, beyond the regular budgeted funding, a cushion meant to tide them over through the period of political uncertainty.

The bottom line is simple: There’s a timetable at work on both sides. The new coalition doesn’t want the Haredi parties to join just yet, and Shas and UTJ have taken steps to ensure they have a few months’ leeway before their community’s institutions grow desperate and their negotiating position begins to deteriorate.

In those months, the Haredi parties will do everything in their power to delegitimize and try to bring down the new coalition — right up to the moment that they ask to join it.

In the end, the new razor-thin coalition will have to prove its sturdiness, surviving no-confidence votes, passing a national budget and enacting the reforms its constituents expect, all without outside help. The Haredi parties will not rescue it, as Bennett and Lapid once hoped.

But if the coalition proves resilient, if it can traverse the first perilous months intact, sheer financial desperation and growing pressure from an already worried rabbinic leadership will likely send the Haredi parties looking for a way in. If the government survives the coming months, there’s a good chance it will survive the next few years.

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