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By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Settlers and the ultra-Orthodox


Settlers and the ultra-Orthodox are important minorities in Israeli politics. Both are somewhere on the fringe of key decision-makers, but must be taken into consideration even if not part of the A-team.

There is no precise measure of either group.

“Settlers” are both more and less the people living in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere over the 1967 borders. Many, most, or the overwhelming majority of the people living in those locales chose their residence for any number of prosaic reasons, with no thought of making a political statement. And there are people living elsewhere in Israel who are on the settlers’ team, supporting whatever their leadership demands.

It may be useful to think of the settlers as overlapping Israel’s “religious” population. That is the term for the Orthodox, but not the ultra-Orthodox. That (roughly) 10 percent of the Jewish population tends to accept a prior claim over the Land of Israel along with other religious doctrines.

However, this, too is problematic.

There are Orthodox Jewish Israelis who do not support extensive settlement, due to their priority for reaching an accord with the Palestinians or avoiding tension with Americans and Europeans.

Moreover, some of the most active settlers are not religious.

Whatever the composition of the “settler camp” in Israeli politics, it is important enough to be taken into consideration with respect to any decision likely to affect them or their aspirations.

Currently they are represented in the government by Jewish Home, with 12 out of 68 members of the coalition, and the ministerial positions of Housing and Construction, with special relevance for settlements, as well as Industry and Trade, Religious Affairs , and Pensioner Affairs (pretty much a made up job meant to give its minister a seat at the table, plus car, driver, and aide).

Thomas Friedman is the drummer in chief of Diaspora Jews against settlement, with acolytes in Israel. Thanks to the circulation of the New York Times, and his contacts with the Obama administration, Friedman may appear more influential than he really is.

In the present government, and the longer haul from 1967 onward, an anti-settlement perspective has been a minor voice in opposition. Despite reservations heard early on, construction has gone forward so that there are some 300,000 Jews in East Jerusalem, and another 350,000 elsewhere in the West Bank.

Recent increases have been mostly in Jerusalem and the established settlement blocs, reflecting policies to restrain the settler movement, which is much different from a willingness to remove major settlements.

Such an initiative would have to overcome the antipathy to what has occurred in Gaza since the removal of settlements in 2005.

Haredim are easier to define than the settlers and their supporters, but there are also problems with knowing the size and politics of this population. One should begin with the differences in style between the Sephardim, arrayed under the leadership of the SHAS political party, and the Ashkenazim of Torah Judaism. However, neither the Sephardim nor the Ashkenazim are united communities. Most prominently among the Ashkenazim are congregational differences, including personal rivalries between prominent rabbis, whose implications for political action can only be guessed at by outsiders—even those considered to be expert—with limited access to the communities. The overt posture is that all Haredim oppose the prospect of recruiting their young men to the IDF and/or the workforce, but there is at least the suspicion of flexibility lurking somewhere within the closed ghettos of the ultra-Orthodox.

Along with being outliers in Israeli politics, both the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers have claims based upon Jewish traditions. The Land of Israel and the study of Torah resonate to some extent with political sophisticates who are secular. Palestinian diatribes against Jewish encroachment and European legislation against kosher slaughtering or infant circumcision ring as the latest expressions of anti-Semitism to Israelis whose parents fled the Holocaust or Muslim fanaticism. American officials who demand a resolution of the conflict via concessions to Palestinians that have been tried time and again come up against Israeli feelings of fatigue, and give strength to sentiments that neither the goyim nor overseas Jews understand Middle Eastern realities.

The settlers and the Haredim each can mobilize 10 percent or more of the Israeli population.

Politics being what it is, votes count in national elections, the management of the government and the Knesset. If the settlers’ representatives or the Haredim are not in this government, they may be essential for composing the next one.

Politicians who aspire to lead Israel, or to keep their leadership, seek to keep the settlers and the Haredim quiet, even while keeping them from trampling on the rest of us. 

That may mean continuing construction over the 1967 line, while limiting it to Jerusalem and the large blocs. With respect to the Haredim, it means weaning them out the academies and to work, with at least some of them sharing the burdens of service in the IDF. No one expects that they will pick up a large burden of actual combat. The IDF also needs  “jobniks,” i.e., soldiers serving administrative tasks, as well as guards, cooks, and—especially suitable to Yeshiva boys—military rabbis and inspectors of kashrut in military kitchens. 

No doubt that the slogan an “equality of burdens” with respect to Haredi service in the IDF will be a long way from any formulation likely to pass the Knesset. Whether the reform, likely to be highly touted by Yair Lapid whose future may depend on it, is enough, for the present or near future, will become apparent only when the enactment is made, and implemented.

Jews have been a political people since our first writings. Moses wrestled with his opponents in the desert. Some years later Ezra coped with Jews unwilling to divorce the wives he considered less than kosher. 

Tensions among the Jews, as well as with our neighbors, are inherent to Israel.

Coping with them, rather than treating them as something to be overridden with a current majority, is characteristic of our democracy.

That’s us and our life. It could be worse.

Ira Sharkansky is professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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