Russians vs the ultra-Orthodox. Israel’s Secular–Religious Divide Gets Political
Claudia De Martino 31 October 2019

The divide between state and religion in Israel has made a powerful comeback in the two rounds of elections the country went through this year. The Russian-origin politician Avigdor Liberman facilitated that outcome by elevating the issue of the military draft for ultra-Orthodox Jews to the top of negotiations for a new governing coalition. The unexpected move saw Netanyahu’s first attempt to form a government fail last April. Given the considerable fragmentation of the popular vote, the second election round, held on September 17, saw again both the major political parties (Likud and Kahol Lavan) declare their commitment to form a “coalition government”, but could not reach agreement about the place of the ultra-Orthodox parties – the long-term Likud allies Sephardi Shas and Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism –  within such framework.

With the two major parties sharing many crucial political orientations — ranging from opposition to the JCPOA with Iran to the status quo with the Palestinians — the current political stalemate has thus been increasingly perceived as a cleavage on the state–religion axis.

The issue of a lively, and sometimes even inflamed, intra-Jewish conflict periodically resurfaces in public debates in Israel. In June 2015, President Reuven Rivlin described Israel as no longer consisting of a sound secular Zionist majority, having split into “four tribes” diverging along the state–religion spectrum (i.e., secular, national-religious, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the Arabs). In fact, two rival and opposing viewpoints currently confront each other concerning intra-Jewish social integration. One is pessimistic, foreseeing the imminent disintegration of Israeli society as a “giant with clay feet”, a cause taken up by left-wing Israelis: “Like a bad game of pick-up sticks, so it is in Israel; moving any toothpick threatens to bring down the entire shaky structure of the ‘Jewish and democratic state’” (Ha’aretz, January 24, 2017).

The metaphor summarizes the resistance of Israeli politicians to embark on any major debate touching on identity issues, whether related to the Nation-State Law, the Military Draft Law, the Wailing Wall access policy, or any other critical issue potentially triggering civil strife within the three major Jewish subgroups. At the opposite end are the centrist and right-wing Israelis, like History Professor Alexander Yakobson’s, who hails the mere fact that “a half-Polish and half-Yemenite State could ever see the light strictly clinging to its democratic government while avoiding any violent inter-ethnic conflict” as a success (Yakobson, 2018). The latter point is embraced by most Israelis, proud to be part of a Zionist state that has managed to multiply its population tenfold since 1948.

But are the Israelis truly so divided along community cleavages, and what role does the religion-state controversy plays in shaping and exacerbating their internal differences?


An identity patchwork

Israel is indeed a highly diverse society. Of the roughly 6.7 million Israeli Jews, some 43% self-identify as secular, 22% as traditional, 13% as traditional–religious, roughly 11% as religious and only 10% as ultra-Orthodox or haredim (Jewish Virtual Library data, 2019). Nevertheless, according to other estimates (Israel Democracy Institute) the percentage of ultra-Orthodox could in fact be higher. Nowadays and contrary to the recent past, the haredim are getting closer to the state: 75% of them declared themselves proud Israelis alongside their religious belonging in a recent poll.

Traditionally concentrated in neighborhoods located in the main cities (Bnei Brak close to Tel Aviv and Mea Sharim in Jerusalem), they now constitute around one-third of the population in peripheral towns like Arad, Ashdod and Tiberia as well, having being forced to go out of their neighborhoods by the combined effect of house-price inflation and demographic pressure.

With nearly half of them being below the age of 16 and a community birth-rate pegged at 4% (about double that of secular Israelis), they are soon likely to become the majority in those peripheral cities they have come to inhabit, casting a threat to secular coexistence at the municipal level. True, the haredim are increasingly joining the workforce, but they are also mostly illiterate in secular topics, such as maths and science, unable or unwilling to make use of advanced technology, and unhappy mixing with other “tribes”. Moreover, by 2030 they are projected to be 53% of pupils entering the first cycle of elementary school, likely becoming thus a de facto powerful separatist minority within the state.

Despite those gloomy forecasts, a large majority of secular Israeli Jews do not want to be dragged into the religion versus state controversy, even as they reject religious coercion at the individual level. Indeed, this bitter Kulturkampf is viewed as an energy-sapping and politically charged fig-leaf aimed at diverting attention from hotter topics, such as the country’s looming military and security threats and its social justice demands. The public perception of the religion-state cleavage is well- summarized by Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern’s assertion that, in Israel, “Religion is the mother and the State is the father” and that no healthy identity excluding one of those two poles is viable. In fact, most Israeli secular Jews would be happy to take a “divided we stand” approach based on religious pluralism.


The Russian question

Instead, there is a fraction of the Israeli society that is eager to embrace this fight and push it to the extreme — namely, the roughly 1.2 million Jews of Soviet origin, whom today make up 15% of the population. Largely a well-educated and highly skilled group, they were welcomed as a “blessed immigration wave” at the time of their mass-arrival in 1990. They have contributed to Israel’s workforce upgrade, to its cultural evolution and the further secularization of the Israeli society. Nonetheless, they have carved out a separate, Russian-speaking public space within the Israeli society for themselves, while displaying a firm rejection of the Chief Rabbinate’s religious coercion in private life.

This latter conflict has been worsened by the Rabbinate’s rejection of Russian families of mixed origins. In the midst of this community, in fact, some 200,000–400,000 people are considered non-Jewish according to the Halachà — that is, the Orthodox Rabbinical Law — which is the only one applied in the country concerning religious issues. Thanks to the “Law of Return” (Law n.51/5710-1950), which prescribes the right of return (shvut) to the Zionist state for any Jew who can trace the most rudimentary ancestry, or who is willing to convert or swear allegiance to Judaism, their immigration to Israel has been relatively straightforward.

However, as the Israeli legal system reflects a complex and stratified amalgam of Ottoman, British, Israeli and Jewish law, its practice has not been coherent and, for example, it has not set itself the task of harmonizing the different conceptions of Jewish identity contained in the laxer “Law of Return” with the stricter views professed by the Rabbinate.

As an unintended consequence, some Russian Jews have found themselves trapped between a state and army that find them perfectly eligible to work and fight on their behalf and a religious establishment that does not acknowledge their right to marry, have their children recognized as Jewish, get divorced or be buried alongside their fellow citizens. They are periodically criticized by religious leaders who brand them as mamzer or bastards (that is, born from non-Jewish mothers). Moreover, their immigration process is targeted as a “mistake” in political debates by prominent figures and DNA tests and conversion processes are envisaged to publicly display their identity and loyalty to the state (Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s electoral campaign’s declaration, March 2019).

Some Russian Jews, who had their citizenship recognized as soon as they landed in the 1990s, have remained “partial strangers” in Israeli society for the remainder.

It is not surprising, then, that — as a consistent and proud minority within the society — the Russians have opted to build their own institutions, catering for their different cultural and entertainment needs (like the Mofet, a network of Russian-speaking schools ensuring higher standards in the teachings of math, physics and Russian language and literature). Nor is it odd that they have established their own political parties (Israel be-‘Aliyah and Israel Beitenu, among the main ones) to air their grievances. Yet even today, twenty years later, Russian Israelis are much less likely to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat and seldom attend synagogue.

Israeli law has been reformed to accommodate at least some of their requests. In 1996, the “Alternative Civil Burial Right Law” was passed to allow for the burial of “non-religiously Jewish” Jews, many of whom are immigrants from the Soviet Union. In 2009, Israel Beitenu, one of their parties, tried to advance legislation introducing a partial form of civil marriage for those Israelis whose religious status was undefined by the state. The bill passed, but it now regulates only weddings occurring between spouses who have both been deprived of religious status.

Social and political changes are deemed too slow, though. So Russian Israelis have built their own advocacy groups to place issues pertaining to the religion-state axis at the heart of the public debate. Bottom-down and grassroots initiatives such as Fishka, a pro-civil liberties NGO established in 2010, and Israel Hofsheet, a movement for religious pluralism, launched in 2009, are both striving to bring civic rights to public attention. The latter has found some good traction, succeeding in establishing an alternative life-cycle ceremonies process (Havaya), completely independent from the Rabbinate but coordinated with the state. In 2017, the group launched a “Shared Life Card” facilitating official recognition of non-religiously married couples by social and governmental services.


Inescapable demands

Coming full circle, it is worth pointing to the eight seats that Israel Beitenu won in the last elections, enabling the party to posit itself as kingmaker between the two major Zionist parties and thus capture the scene with its “secular agenda”. Many, even among those of the “Russian street” (the so-called Russian constituency), have viewed this attempt by Liberman as not entirely authentic and designed to advance his personal quest for leadership. Still, it is indisputable that the “secular agenda” is once again front and center on the political stage and will be a pivot for the prospective government, whenever it is formed. The Russians are no shoe-ins to close ranks with the “leftists”— as some pundits and intellectuals, among them, the historian Shlomo Sand — have optimistically claimed.

Nevertheless, it would be fair to assume that their continuous flow into the country (a good third of the 29,600 immigrants who have arrived in 2019 are Russians) and their very strong cultural resilience will put the Russians — the largest completely secular minority group in Israel — into direct confrontation for state resources and legitimacy with the ultra-Orthodox. Therefore, it is unlikely that Israel’s religion-state Kulturkampf will wither away from Israeli politics any time soon, instead of presenting a powerful hindrance to the formation of a stable government—now and into the foreseeable future.

Photo: Ben-Avi/AFP

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