AnalysisBelatedly realizing how badly it was handled, who might pay

Haredi parties were at forefront of overhaul push. Then they weren’t. What changed?

How ultra-Orthodox politics pivoted from passionate support for the government’s radical legislation to anxiously calling for a pause and a compromise

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Police push back supporters of ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni during clashes with anti-overhaul activists, outside Gafni's home in Bnei Brak, on March 14, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Police push back supporters of ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni during clashes with anti-overhaul activists, outside Gafni's home in Bnei Brak, on March 14, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Over the past week, as the government’s judicial shakeup ground to a dramatic (if temporary) halt amid ever-growing opposition and the coalition’s own profound political errors, something strange happened to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners, the parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Everyone suddenly noticed that they had transformed from the most avid supporters of the sweeping judicial reform to the most pragmatic and moderating influence in the coalition.

They have pushed other coalition parties to freeze the breakneck legislative rush.

On Wednesday, it was reportedly Haredi pressure that forced Netanyahu to finally pause the “Gifts Law” allowing public servants to receive gifts to cover legal and medical bills. They agreed to freeze the “Second Deri Law” that would have allowed Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to government despite a court ruling that prohibited him from doing so.

They quietly backed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who Netanyahu tried to fire after he came out openly on Saturday night in favor of pausing the judicial reform. Deri has worked frantically to convince Netanyahu not to fire Gallant.

They openly urged the residents of Bnei Brak to avoid street confrontations when anti-overhaul protests passed through the Haredi city last week. And in recent days, when right-wing demonstrations in favor of the overhaul began to organize, the Haredi leadership steadfastly restrained their flock, who did not join the protests.

They’ve even begun to feel out a potential new coalition with centrist parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, center, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Haredi parties had until recently championed some of the most unpopular measures of the judicial shakeup, including the “override clause” allowing the Knesset to ignore court rulings with a simple-majority vote, the Deri law, the bills strengthening religious courts and allowing hospitals to prohibit non-kosher food on Passover.

Then, all of a sudden, they seemed to be working ferociously to stall and stymie the coalition, to tone down the rhetoric and pressure Netanyahu and other right-wing figures to seek a compromise.

What happened?

No trust in the court

No single Israeli population is more angry at the High Court or opposed to its much-criticized powers than the Haredi community.

For most of the political right, reforming the court is a touchstone of political identity and ideology. It is an abstraction. Few can point to any specific personal harm done to them by the court.

Not so the Haredim.

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)

Rulings on the military draft — the court’s canceling of several compromises reached in the Knesset over the question of drafting young Haredi men to the IDF — made the court’s power and activism a burning question in ordinary households. Court rulings limiting state subsidies to schools that refuse to teach core curriculum subjects like math and English have had a similar effect, convincing a great many ordinary Haredim that the court is an instrument of liberal social engineering that tears at the fabric of their society.

This popular distrust of the court made Shas and UTJ eager early participants in the populist rhetoric and in the torrent of unpopular bills that accompanied the legislation that would constrain the High Court. Indeed, some of the most despised bills that have helped drive opposition protests over the past three months (and sometimes directed the protests in explicitly anti-Haredi directions) came out of the Haredi parties.

Protesters carry a banner reading “the people chose judicial reform” at a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on March 30, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

It wasn’t just the famous ones, like the bill expanding the powers of religious courts. For a time, Haredi parties seemed to be plotting a voter suppression campaign against secular Israelis. What should an opposition voter make of the proposal by UTJ to cancel Election Day’s status as a national holiday, making it harder for working Israelis to vote but not for those with lower rates of workforce participation like the Haredim?

Or of another proposal by the same party to cancel the right of university students to vote in special mobile ballot stations, forcing them — a category with almost no Haredi members — to travel home to cast their ballot?

Such measures were written off by the right as feckless political signaling. But among protest activists they were noticed and discussed, helping to fuel the conviction that the government’s judicial shakeup was a push toward theocratic authoritarianism.

Supporters of United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni hold up a banner that reads “leftists are traitors,” during an anti-government protest outside his home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, March 14, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The override

The Haredi parties were also the chief backers of one of the most controversial elements of the judicial remake, the override clause. While Likud sources have quietly insisted for weeks that the override wasn’t a real proposal and won’t pass, the measure was one of UTJ’s preconditions for joining the coalition.

It’s no secret that Haredim distrust the High Court. But many Israelis don’t realize that this distrust goes beyond the court’s purported leftist tilt. To Haredi political leaders like UTJ’s Moshe Gafni, even a court staffed with Likud-appointed, small-government conservatives is a danger to the Haredi way of life.

A conservative court might not try to force Haredi men to serve in the military, but it could easily take a cudgel to the Haredi leadership’s main source of pressure that keeps many young Haredi men in seminary: the legal requirement that they devote years to seminary studies, well into their twenties, as a condition for avoiding the draft. The Haredi leadership supports that requirement, the only legal leverage it has to ensure young men stick to their religious studies instead of going to work.

Such a court might also weaken the rabbinical courts’ powers or issue rulings that scale back the vast state rabbinate apparatus that serves as a major employer in the community, or even challenge the legal monopoly enjoyed by these Haredi-controlled state bodies over kashrut. (Laws passed in recent years by the Haredi parties have made it literally illegal to call something “kosher” without the approval of the state rabbinate.)

The takeaway for the Haredi parties: It isn’t enough to push for a more restrained or conservative court on the Likud model. Haredim must be protected from both sides’ versions of the court.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut (center) and colleagues hold a hearing on petitions demanding they block the return of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction and suspended sentence for tax offenses, at the High Court in Jerusalem, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And that means the Knesset must have its override. The Haredi parties are confident they can impose their view on a ruling coalition by threatening to leave it, and so would usually be able to muster the 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset for resisting any unfavorable ruling by the court once the override clause is passed.

Silent running

Oppressive or seemingly corrupt bills by Shas and UTJ, a simple majority override that effectively erases the High Court, and a long history of anger at the judiciary all put the Haredi community at the forefront of the judiciary fight over the past three months.

Then, about two weeks ago, they suddenly went silent.

As the protests grew and Netanyahu seemed to lose control of the situation, the Haredi leadership began to worry it had miscalculated. At every turn, they say, Netanyahu has proven unable to rein in the extremists in his coalition — extremists he’d worked hard to shepherd into the Knesset.

He allowed Justice Minister Levin and Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman to push the overhaul in a blitz and was caught flatfooted by the inevitable blowback.

Anti-government protesters burn tires near Beit Yanai, Israel, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Just this past week, in a desperate bid to hold his coalition together, Netanyahu promised Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir a new police force answerable directly to him.

The idea of forming a ”national guard” to handle mass street violence is not a new one, nor one that began on the far-right. It was floated by the last government and had the quiet support of even some on the left. But the idea of handing full control over such a force to a man convicted of terrorism offenses with a long record of extremist and racist politics is as upsetting to many in the coalition as in the opposition.

Netanyahu, Haredi leaders now say behind closed doors, doesn’t control the government, doesn’t set the pace of events. He is reactive, controlled by his partners, unreliable

And to fund the force, the government announced on Thursday a 1.5% cut to all other budgets, including the ministries of welfare and health that are central to the Haredi community.

Netanyahu, Haredi leaders now say behind closed doors, doesn’t control the government, doesn’t set the pace of events. He is reactive, controlled by his partners, unreliable.

And that scares politicians like Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni. Political chaos, they believe, bodes ill for their community.

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the proposed formation of a National Guard on March 29, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The frightened periphery

The anti-overhaul protests have attracted over one-fifth of the total Israeli population, according to polls. No small part of that surging new activism has been focused on the high contributions of the liberal half of the country now being steamrolled into submission — as protesters put it — by a government intent on brushing away any checks on its power.

A new Israeli exploration of the meaning of democracy, of the responsibilities of majorities and minorities, is not a conversation that the Haredi leadership wants to have

The center-left insists democracy is more than oppressive rule by a slim majority. The right says democracy is more than an oligarchy of liberal elites. The Haredi parties wish the whole debate would just go away. A new Israeli exploration of the meaning of democracy, of the responsibilities of majorities and minorities, is not a conversation that the Haredi leadership wants to have.

There is a curious abnormality in the Israeli political system, especially when compared to other western nations with high levels of political polarization: Most Israelis agree on most issues.

The divide of Israel’s politics into two camps, now dubbed “center-left” and “right,” is visceral and real. Israelis feel that dividing line powerfully. But even though it corresponds to their political behavior, it has surprisingly little bearing on their actual beliefs.

Indeed, it can be hard to pin down any deeply-held organizing beliefs that define any political camp. Right-wing activists of the “19th-century liberal” variety (as Netanyahu refers to himself) think of right-wing politics as premised on free-market economics and individual liberties. Yet no political party in Israel is more intertwined with labor unions or more readily hands power over the religious lives of Israelis to state institutions than Netanyahu’s Likud.

The left was once defined by its search for a solution to the Palestinian quandary; it hasn’t run on that issue in a generation, not since the suicide bombing campaigns of the Second Intifada. Meanwhile, a new “center” has arisen whose basic premise is that little substantive disagreement exists between left and right.

A protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

When Israelis are polled on their political identities, a clear left-right divide emerges. But when they are polled on the issues, even divisive ones, a different structure emerges in Israeli politics: a large, centrist mainstream and a handful of ideological and cultural peripheries.

That holds true on judicial reform as much as any other issue. Most Israelis, polls say, support some kind of reform, but don’t support the government’s specific proposals or the way in which they have been advanced.

In fact, some on the right are worried that the government’s aggressive push has inadvertently handed the center-left its first substantive, distinct policy agenda in years.

And there’s the rub for the Haredi leadership.

They are belatedly realizing just how badly the government bungled its push to remake the judiciary. “If from this whole event, the High Court emerges stronger than the current situation, that’ll be because of Yariv Levin and his handling [of the reform],” one senior Haredi political figure told a political reporter from a major Haredi news site this week.

They are now starting to wonder if, when the dust settles, the Haredi community will end up paying the price for the political civil war sparked by the overhaul.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dance during Simchat Torah celebrations in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, October 17, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It wouldn’t take much. A broad compromise that reflects the substantive views of the centrist majority could satisfy liberals and Likud conservatives, but would leave Haredim saddled with a court that still takes a dim view of their institutions and arrangements. A resurgence of the public fight, meanwhile, would only further embitter and enrage half the country, including specifically at the Haredi community, and thus put the Haredi social safety net at risk if they find themselves out of power.

These are no idle concerns.

A Bank of Israel report last week put into numbers what everybody already knew. For all its power, the Haredi community is dependent on the willingness of others to continue to pay its bills.

According to the report, each month the average Haredi household draws a net NIS 2,776 ($767) from the state treasury in direct payments — that’s subsidies received minus taxes contributed. Meanwhile, the average non-Haredi Jewish household pays a net NIS 2,206 ($610) per month into the system.

It’s a simple graph (p. 164 here) that describes a simple reality: One side gives, the other receives.

That fact leaves the community more vulnerable to shifts in the political winds than any other Israeli minority.

Shas supporters celebrate after exit polls showed the ultra-Orthodox party winning seats, in Tel Aviv, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Haredi fear of the court put Shas and UTJ squarely at the heart of the coalition’s campaign to weaken the judiciary. By the time they understood how badly the government’s strategy was going and how much fear and rage it had sparked in the streets, it was too late.

They believe they may be watching the slow-moving implosion of the coalition. They are increasingly worried that such a collapse will push them out of power and bring their newly-enraged opponents into office. They are worried, too, about the opposite outcome: A broad reconciliation and constitutional compromise that gives political expression to the great centrist mainstream — and leaves them out in the cold.

No wonder posters have gone up this week in Haredi neighborhoods praising the political leadership with “gratitude and a blessing… for their decision not to get involved in the judicial reform and not to drag their public into controversies that are not ours.”

Better late than never.

Their counsels of restraint now fall on deaf ears, including with Netanyahu. Likud is openly saying it plans to get back to a full-court press when the Knesset returns from its spring recess in a month, this time armed with a grassroots operation capable of sending protesters into the streets to counter the opposition demonstrators. Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, meanwhile, didn’t get where they are by moderation and compromise.

Shas and UTJ are no longer quite so keen to shrink the High Court or strengthen the rabbinical courts. Some Haredi journalists have even lamented the Passover hospital-food initiative.

Increasingly, they are coming to view this moment as a dangerous one, and to believe the overwhelming priority must be to calm tempers, stabilize the coalition and try to claw back whatever can be salvaged from the politics that preceded the judiciary fight.

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