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Israel Appoints First Female Aviation Squadron Commander [Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Facebook]

The next Israeli general election is slated for November 2019. However, recent gains by the Orthodox Jewish sector have sparked a fierce clash with the majority of Israelis who are either secular or semi-religious. The confrontation swirls around the current campaign by ultra-orthodox politicians and some national religious rabbis that has aroused great indignation by other Jewish Israelis. In order to grasp the nature of this ' culture war,' it is necessary to define the various camps involved.

First is the ultra-orthodox Haredim who strive to impose strict observance of the Sabbath and oppose the drafting Haredi men (and women) into the IDF. They hold the balance of power in Bibi's coalition and can topple the government. They couldn't care less about the Land of Israel movement that campaigns for total Israeli control of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Next is the national religious - they are also strictly religious and are fanatical about extending Israeli rule over Judea & Samaria, that was bequeathed by the Almighty. The men do serve in the IDF, and how! The majority serve in combat units where many become officers. But while this gung-ho approach applies to young men, some national religious rabbis are categorically opposed to women serving in the IDF alongside men, on religious grounds.

This has led to a delicate and at times an acrimonious balance of power in Israeli society.

The rest of Jewish population is a mix of partly religious - those who do not wear a kippa (skullcap) but may go to synagogue on Saturday morning and then drive their kids to the beach on Saturday afternoon. The rest are totally secular who never go to synagogue, do not fast on Yom Kippur and are atheists. Nonetheless, on Yom Kippur, the only vehicles you will see on the roads are ambulances. Historical tradition runs deep in the Jewish state. tradition.

This has led to a delicate and at times an acrimonious balance of power in Israeli society. For the past nine years, the ultra-orthodox and the national religious have supported the Likud which is a closer bed-fellow, certainly than the Left, and they have reaped the benefits in budgets and legislation. However, Israeli democracy has been tarnished by the rabbinical courts enjoying the power to rule in the private lives of citizens by maintaining a monopoly over such sensitive areas such as religious conversion, divorce cases, kashrut enforcement, and more. For example, due to pressure from the ultra-orthodox, a compromise allowing Conservative and Reform Jews to pray at the Western Wall was torpedoed at the last moment due to the ultra-orthodox threat to topple the government. Bibi had to turn his back on the enraged Jews of North America, the vast majority of whom are not Haredim. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Netanyahu was able to sail through this storm more or less unscathed in Israel.

But in recent days, the ultra-orthodox and the national religious camp has incensed much of the Israeli public, perhaps the silent majority.

First of all the government has granted Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (who has served time in the slammer for financial corruption and is now under a new police investigation) the power to close private businesses on the Sabbath. Those that remain open are subject to fines. The way it works is that local governments can send special Sabbath inspectors (that must be non-Jews because Jews are not supposed to work on the Sabbath) to check on those stores, restaurants etc., who are breaking the law by staying open for business. What has developed over the years is that the population of various communities has determined whether Saturday is a day for business or not. For example, in Jerusalem, where there is a large religious population, businesses are closed - however 'it's business as usual' in secular Tel Aviv. Bear in mind the younger generation of Israelis work far more than a forty-hour week and leave their Saturdays by going to shopping malls and restaurants and the like. They want to go out and relax and have fun. Now, by passing a stricter Sabbath observance law for the whole country, the government has lit a firestorm.

Avigdor Lieberman

The port of Ashdod became the flashpoint because it is split between secular and religious citizens. Several thousand people demonstrated against the attempt to close down the town on Saturday. This while inspectors made their rounds handing out fines. Naturally, the media pounced on the drama. So did secular politicians. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who leads a party of predominantly Russian immigrants (who are secular) blasted a 'patent attempt by the ultra-orthodox parties to dictate their way of life to all Israelis!' Lieberman whose own party is slumping in the polls was greeted with applause.

But this was only one burning issue - there was another that infuriated many Israelis. The Israeli Air force has just announced that for the first time a female pilot has been appointed a squadron leader. Now, although the ultra-orthodox and the national religious disagree on the 'Land of Israel' they are closer to seeing eye to eye on another issue - that 'a woman's place is in the home' not in a fighter jet or in the military. Also, their religious way of life keeps young men separated or chaperoned before marriage. Three important rabbis, who are actually public servants paid from the public coffers, have blasted the appointment of a female squadron leader. This, in their view, was 'not fitting and set a bad example for religious women!' Another flabbergasted national religious MK, Bezalel Smutritch exclaimed: 'What do we want, our women to become men and our men to take orders from women!' As a matter of fact, more religious women have been serving in the IDF although they could be exempted on the grounds they are religious. This has caused concern among some in the national religious camp. Most ultra-orthodox men are also exempt from IDF service on the same grounds. The only comparison that comes to mind in a democratic country, maybe the US during the Vietnam War when college students were exempt. (Canada during World war II did not impose compulsory service due to the opposition of French Canadians).

Getting back to Israel, one of the rabbis even called on Defense Minister Lieberman to resign for 'God forbid' appointing a woman to squadron leader in the IAF. Lieberman was not found wanting - he barred the three rabbis from being invited to IDF installations after they had maligned Israeli female soldiers and officers. The rest of the secular population naturally took pride in the appointment of the female squadron leader in what most experts say is one the of the top air forces in the world. In fact, not all the other rabbis or national religious Jews agreed with the three outraged rabbis.

While all this was going on, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sarah were being wined and dined by India's President Modi. Son Yair, although officially invited, was left behind by Mom and Dad to ponder his tawdry visits to strip clubs and whatever goes on in their back rooms.

Yair Lapid (photo: Yair Lapid Facebook)

But all these goings-on could have a catastrophic or beneficial impact on the survival of the coalition, depending on your political leaning. Two of the coalition partners the ultra-orthodox parties and Lieberman are at each other's throats. Not only that, even some Likud MKS, realizing the public backlash against Bibi's caving in to ultra-orthodox pressure, have been trying to distance themselves from the ultra-orthodox payoffs. Moreover, the Opposition is having a field day. MK Yair Lapid also showed up in Ashdod to haul the government over the coals. Bear in mind, Lapid is leading Bibi in the opinion polls and the worst is yet to come in the police investigations into financial chicanery by the Prime Minister.

At week's end, the so-called status quo on religious co-existence was being battered, but not beyond repair. The secular silent majority has started making some noise. But on the other hand, the orthodox religious parties may come to their senses and realize they have overstepped by exploiting their balance of power in the cabinet. Particularly if they see Lapid and Lieberman rising in the polls. In addition, many Likudniks are also annoyed by this latest religious coercion and charge, the ultra-orthodox have become 'too big for their britches'. And then there's the Prime Minister, who will likely step in and call everyone to order unless they want an early election.


Political Analyst David Essing



David Essing


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