By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Policy disputes and kulturkampf


Newspaper estimates of the numbers taking part in recent demonstrations tell us something about the ranking of items on the agendas of various sectors.

What is impressive is not the precision of such numbers, but great differences in their magnitude.

On Thursday evening of last week, it was estimated that 30,000 haredim massed outside the Jerusalem recruitment office, with some of them expressing the low level of violence likely to occur when riled by their rabbis. Several protesters and police were injured, eight haredim were taken into custody, but also as characteristic of such matters, they were soon released pending their appearance in court.

Men speaking for the protesters on the next day’s talk shows kept to the lines we have heard before. The haredim will choose jail over forced enlistment in the IDF, and the country would suffer the wrath of the haredim and the Lord, insofar as the study of Torah is the most effective means of defending Israel from its numerous enemies.

As Saturday evening approached, organizers of social protests sought to increase the numbers who would assemble in Tel Aviv and other cities beyond the 12,000 or so who participated the previous week. Aspirations were to reach toward the 200,000 who marched in the summer of 2011. Organizers emphasized the tax increases and service cuts likely to affect the middle class, profits made by “tycoons” controlling major companies, and the luxurious life style of the prime minister and his family.

The fizzle could be heard throughout the country when the numbers appeared on the Sunday morning news. “Several hundred” appeared at each major location, with “a few dozen” outside one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s homes.

Minister of Finance Yair Lapid has led the campaigns to increase taxes and cut government spending in order to deal with the sizable government deficit, and to “even the distribution of burdens” by forcing young haredi men out of their academies and into the IDF or national service, and then into the workforce.

Lapid has positioned himself as preferring negotiations rather than relying on enforcement. He reached an agreement with the head of the Labor Federation that included significant modifications or postponements in the reforms to be imposed on enterprises associated with powerful labor unions. Lapid has encountered complexities in the laws touching on the education of the haredim, which led him to back off from some provisions that had been included in earlier drafts of the government budget. There are conflicting reports about his negotiations with Ariyeh Deri, the head of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS. Deri claims to have achieved concessions that Lapid denies. According to Lapid, “Deri announced that we met and closed on the deal and I am telling you that we never met and we never spoke. He is a liar, as has already been proven by three courts.”

Lapid has committed himself to reforming haredi education to include mandatory teaching in mathematics and English, and perhaps social science, but concedes that the changes cannot occur as rapidly as he preferred.

Affecting recent events are differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-Orthodox communities that have long been with us, although not well known by those who lump the ultra-Orthodox into one category, or even group them with the Orthodox. With all the reservations appropriate to stereotyped descriptions of diverse populations, those that distinguished Sephardi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox bear some resemblance to realities.

It is the Ashkenazim who are most adamant against the state breaking into their ghetto-like communities and dragging or enticing their young men into contact with secular Jews via the military or employment. In line with demands to maintain their separation and assertions of extreme piety, several Ashkenazi congregations have been explicit in setting themselves on a higher level than the Sephardim, claiming a greater adherence to religious law, and refusing to admit Sephardi applicants to their schools.

Involved in the Ashkenazi-Sephardi differences is the support given the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party by voters who are not ultra-Orthodox in their practices. Jews of North African and Asian backgrounds who are “traditional” support SHAS as an ethnic symbol, for its claims of fighting discrimination against the Sephardim by the Ashkenazim (secular as well as religious) and working to provide greater benefits to lower-income Israelis. In Israeli parlance, “traditional” Jews identify with religious practices, but are not assiduous in keeping the commandments. They may keep kosher at home, kiss the mezuzah on a door post and occasionally wear a skullcap while not at prayer, but ride to a family barbecue or a football game on the Sabbath.

Yair Lapid’s assertion that Ariyeh Deri was proven a liar refers to his conviction, upheld on appeal, and the 22 months he served in prison for accepting bribes as Minister of the Interior. It was consistent with the postures adopted by SHAS as the subject of discrimination that Deri claimed to have been railroaded by anti-Sephardi prosecutors and judges. The elder rabbi who created SHAS and still serves as its titular spiritual leader also claimed that Deri was subject to persecution and reinstated Deri as party leader.

The Sephardi reputation for being more easy going, flexible and tolerant of deviation than Ashkenazim may have something to do with a more casual approach toward secular and religious law that they brought with them to Israel from elsewhere in the Middle East. Deri is one of six SHAS Members of Knesset who have been charged and convicted for one or another variety of corruption. Optimists see the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox as less opposed than the Ashkenazim to including secular subjects in their schools, as well as military service and gainful employment, and more open to negotiation and compromise on those issues.

The numbers at recent demonstrations suggest that it will be easier to implement economic reforms than the extraction of the ultra-Orthodox, especially the Ashkenazim, from a lifetime of religious study.

Those who protested economic policies two years ago were disproportionately well educated and secular young adults. Recent polls indicate that they are disappointed at the change in tune heard from Lapid as he has moved from aspiring politician to Minister of Finance. The modest numbers at this year’s demonstrations suggest that many who demonstrated in the past have been persuaded by Lapid and others about the need to restrain expenditures and increase taxation.

The generally quiet marches by protesters of economic policies lacked the intensity shown most prominently by the Ashkenazi haredim about an issue that they frame in religious terms. To their spokesmen, the efforts of Lapid (who they label as an anti-Semite) to remove them from Torah study are comparable to the cruelest edicts imposed on the Jews by anti-Jewish rulers. They liken Lapid’s aspirations to the decrees of Antiochus that forbid circumcision and required the sacrifice of swine on the Temple altar, which led to the rebellion of Judas Maccabeus and the holiday of Chanukah.

The economic reforms directed at the budget deficit is a matter of policy dispute, dealt with by discussion and compromise. Getting the haredim into the IDF or social service, and reforming their education to train them for the workforce is a kulturkampf, or clash of civilizations. 

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. You may reach him at


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