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No, Israel Isn’t About to Turn Into a Theocracy

A misleading New York Times op-ed distorts the entire Israeli political scene

Yair Rosenberg
April 11, 2014
The Western Wall, Jerusalem. (Shutterstock)
The Western Wall, Jerusalem. (Shutterstock)

Today, the New York Times published an op-ed that attempts to demonstrate that Israel is drifting towards an Orthodox Jewish theocracy. Unfortunately for the paper, the piece instead demonstrates its authors’ profound ignorance of both Israeli domestic politics and Orthodox Judaism. The entire argument of the op-ed, written by the otherwise excellent Iranian scholar Abbas Milani and University of Haifa’s Israel Waismel-Manor, hinges on one key point:

While the Orthodox Jewish parties are currently not part of the government, together with Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home, a right-wing religious party, they hold about 25 percent of seats in the Knesset. The Orthodox parties aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy.

As will be apparent to anyone with a passing familiarity with Israeli politics or Orthodox Judaism, this claim is demonstrably false. Not all Orthodox Jews are the same, not all Orthodox parties are the same, and not all Orthodox Jews seeks to turn Israel into a theocracy. In fact, many of them vigorously oppose such a move. The authors conveniently combine the ultra-Orthodox parties (currently in opposition) and the Modern Orthodox—or religious Zionist—Jewish Home party (currently in the coalition). Suggesting that these deeply disparate communities are ideologically identical is a dubious step, but it is necessary for the authors’ thesis, because Jewish Home holds 12 Knesset seats, a little less than half of the writers’ purported theocratic bloc. Without Jewish Home working with the ultra-Orthodox to impose Orthodox Jewish law on the masses, the op-ed’s entire scheme falls apart.

How inconvenient, then, that Jewish Home and its leader Naftali Bennett have been working assiduously to weaken the country’s chief rabbinate, and to break the political stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox over Israel’s religious life. Back in May 2013, Bennett became the first religious affairs minister in Israeli history to order the government to fund non-Orthodox rabbis, not just Orthodox ones. (Until then, Israel had been subsidizing all religious communities except non-Orthodox Jews.) Jewish Home has also backed legislation stripping the powers of conversion and marriage from the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate, and giving them instead to local (and typically more liberal) rabbis.

These developments should not be surprising: Bennett is a Modern Orthodox Jew who served in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, made millions in the tech industry, and is married to a non-Orthodox woman. His longtime deputy, and the Jewish Home’s number five seat, is Ayelet Shaked, herself a proud secular Jew. Not exactly the stereotypical bearded fanatics of a theocratic revolution.

But the Times‘s distortion of Israel goes deeper than a simple misunderstanding of a single party. The op-ed fundamentally misapprehends the entire Israeli political scene, which in recent years has turned against religious entanglement in politics. After the 2013 elections, the arguably theocratic ultra-Orthodox parties were kept out of the government coalition, for only the second time in 35 years. Why? Because Jewish Home joined with the secular Yesh Atid party and demanded Netanyahu leave them in opposition. This has enabled the current coalition to pass not only the anti-rabbinate reforms described above, but a law that for the first time drafts the ultra-Orthodox into national service, in an attempt to integrate them into the fabric of the modern state. All of these reforms have been boosted by Modern Orthodox Jewish lawmakers in other parties–like Yesh Atid’s Rabbi Shai Piron (also Israel’s education minister) and Rabbi Dov Lipman, and Hatnua’s Elazar Stern–none of whom support theocracy.

In other words, the idea that the ultra-Orthodox parties would suddenly join forces with their religious Zionist counterparts to impose Jewish law isn’t just risible–it’s exactly the opposite of what has actually been happening.

Now, none of this is news. In fact, the alliance between Israel’s secular population and its modern Orthodox contingent against the ultra-Orthodox–rather than some fantastical pan-Orthodox push towards theocracy–has been well-documented by none other than the New York Times. Just last month, Isabel Kershner wrote about the “culture war between the secular and modern Orthodox Jews and the ultra-Orthodox,” and how it was reflected in the popular push to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military.

If only the authors of the op-ed–and their fact-checkers–had been reading their own paper.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.