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Israel’s Lieberman attacks ultra-Orthodox in election video

Israel’s Former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, appears dressed in mock ultra-Orthodox attire on 21 March 2019
Israel’s Former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, appears dressed in mock ultra-Orthodox attire on 21 March 2019

Israel’s Former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, has released an election campaign video attacking the country’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, as a new poll reveals 65 per cent of Israelis would prefer their parties didn’t sit in government.

In the video released yesterday to coincide with the Jewish festival of Purim – which is celebrated by wearing fancy dress costumes – Lieberman appears dressed in mock ultra-Orthodox attire. He announces himself as the “great, righteous rabbi of Kishinev”, the Moldovan capital of Chisinau where Lieberman was born.

He then says: “I rule that public transport on Shabbat is permitted, civil marriage is permitted, and DNA tests are prohibited. Amen.” The ultra-Orthodox have long been vehemently opposed to allowing public transport to run on Saturdays and have opposed civil marriage because they believe it would facilitate intermarriage between Jews and other faith groups.

The reference to DNA tests, the Jerusalem Post explains, “refer[s] to the recent revelations that the state rabbinical courts sometimes use DNA testing to help prove Jewish status, and have even required citizens to do the test if they wanted to get married in Israel”. This practice has disproportionately targeted immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, who the ultra-Orthodox argue only have distant Jewish ancestry.

Given Lieberman’s own Soviet heritage, his Yisrael Beiteinu party was originally founded to appeal to Russian-speaking, largely secular Israelis who have immigrated in large numbers since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.

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The video will therefore be interpreted as an attempt by Lieberman to rejuvenate support among his traditional electoral base. Lieberman has been struggling in the polls ahead of the upcoming general election on 9 April, with some commentators suggesting Yisrael Beiteinu may not pass the 3.25 per cent minimum vote threshold needed to sit in the 120-seat Knesset. A number of factors could account for this drop in support, including the availability of alternative right-wing parties and disillusionment with Lieberman’s performance as defence minister.

READ: Israel Justice Minister causes a stink with election video

The Haredim are a favourite target of Lieberman’s and have repeatedly come under fire since he launched his election campaign in January. Yisrael Beiteinu’s new slogan went so far as to compare the Haredim to Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, saying: “It doesn’t matter if you surrender to those who raise weapons [Hamas] or those who refuse to raise weapons [the Haredim]. Surrender is surrender.”

Lieberman has also vowed to push his so-called Haredi draft law forward should he join a ruling coalition after 9 April. The law would see ultra-Orthodox men conscripted into the Israeli army, a duty from which they are currently exempt in order to attend yeshiva (religious school). The law has been vehemently opposed by the Haredim, who have staged demonstrations in Jerusalem in which they often clashed violently with the Israeli police.

Ultra Orthodox Jewish people stage a protest against compulsory military service in Jerusalem on March 28, 2017 (Gil Cohen Magen - Anadolu Agency )

A group of Ultra Orthodox Jews hold placards as they stage a protest against compulsory military service on 28 March 2017 [Gil Cohen Magen/Anadolu Agency]

In a bid to ease tensions and keep the ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition, the Israeli government has repeatedly appealed to the Supreme Court to extend the deadline on passing the law. The latest delay was granted in December, after Lieberman’s abrupt departure from the coalition left the government in a precarious position and unlikely to be able to survive the vote. It will now be voted on in July.

READ: Israel’s Lieberman: Next confrontation with Gaza must be the last

Lieberman’s attack on the ultra-Orthodox, however, could prove well-timed and hold appeal beyond his traditional electorate. A new poll conducted by Israeli NGO Hiddush and the Smith Institute has found that 65 per cent of Israeli-Jews want a government without the two ultra-Orthodox parties: Shas, which largely represents the Sephardic and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) ultra-Orthodox communities; and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), an alliance made up of the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties which are supported by Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox voters.

Among secular Jewish-Israeli voters, the proportion of those who said they want a ruling coalition without the Haredi parties rose to 80 per cent. Meanwhile among national-religious or religious-Zionist voters – who mostly support right-wing parties like Jewish Home – 31 per cent also want to see the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded from government.

Though this divide in Israeli society is not new, these figures demonstrate an increasing intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox and the disproportionate influence their parties hold over government policy.

Although exact statistics for the Haredi population are difficult to come by, a December study by the Israel Democracy Institute put the number at around a million. Ultra-Orthodox parties currently hold 13 seats in the Knesset – seven for Shas and six for UTJ – making their democratic representation the same as that of Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that the latter community is almost twice the size. UTJ and Shas have long been loyal allies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, exacting a high price in return for their loyalty. They have also vowed to support Netanyahu again after 9 April, unlike many other parties which have ruled out joining his ruling coalition should he be re-elected because of the corruption charges levelled against him.

The Haredim pose an existential question for Israel that extends far beyond election campaigning. The same study by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that, though in previous years the Haredim were becoming increasingly integrated into Israeli society – with women entering the workplace, young people enrolling in secular higher education and the number of men studying full-time in yeshiva decreasing – more recently these trends have reversed. With poverty rates among the ultra-Orthodox at 45 per cent – compared to a national average of 18.5 per cent – and with many families reliant on government stipends, the economic burden they represent for the state is a source of anger for many Israelis.

A study in late 2017 by the Israeli government found that in the next 40 years Israel’s Jewish population is expected to double. However, within this projected 18 million citizens, 29 per cent will be ultra-Orthodox, representing a three-fold increase in the community’s current size. Israel will therefore need to decide how to reconcile the intra-communal tensions this question has exposed during the next Knesset.

READ: Gantz seeks ‘Jewish and Zionist’ allies, ruling out coalition with Israel-Arab parties

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