Israel's Rabbis in Retreat as Obama Arrives

When President Obama arrives in Israel on Wednesday he will be greeted by a prime minister who has been dethroned as king of Israel and is vulnerable to political pressures. Benjamin Netanyahu bet on the support of the religious bloc in the January elections, and his party lost heavily. Most important for ordinary Israelis, the religious parties were overwhelmed by secular voters who left the rabbis politically marginalized, with some accusing their former ally of betrayal and threatening revenge.

On his 48-hour visit, Obama will artfully sidestep symbolic Jewish religious sites like the Western Wall, making an obligatory visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial but skipping the quarrelsome Knesset in favor of an address to predominantly liberal college students (tickets are issued by the U.S. Embassy, and no students from the Jewish Ariel University in the occupied West Bank need apply). Instead of a Jewish or Muslim shrine, the president is scheduled to visit Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, which if anything sends a message to Muslim fundamentalists to respect the rights of Christian minorities.

Until now, the political power of Israel's Orthodox minority had spread even though they normally hold only about 10 percent of the seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. This small minority maximized its political leverage by literally offering its bloc votes to the highest bidder: any government that would continue to exempt yeshiva students from military service to live on state welfare, and continue to maintain or increase subsidies for the strict religious education at schools that cynics called Jewish madrassas. An increasing number of Israeli intellectuals warned that if unchecked, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis might try to impose a theocratic state like Iran.

Finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. After Netanyahu tried to cement the rabbis' electoral support by refusing to eliminate the students' military exemption despite a huge parliamentary majority, the voters reduced his Likud party to less than one-third of the Knesset. No longer "Bibi: King of Israel" -- as Time magazine crowned him last year -- he was able to remain prime minister only by crafting a coalition government with the middle-class Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) and the religious nationalist Habait Hayudi (The Jewish Home). Both new parties refused to serve with the Orthodox parties, whose leaders were excluded from power. That left the coalition more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.

It took more than a month to make the deals which, if they had not been concluded by mid-March, could have forced new elections and possibly left Netanyahu even further isolated. The new government will be Israel's 33rd, and if the coalition holds, the erosion of ultra-Orthodox power will be difficult if not impossible to reverse. Although the yeshiva students' military exemption may not end for several years, all religious schools will have to end their exclusive focus on Torah and Talmud studies and offer courses in English, mathematics and history, thus enabling ultra-Orthodox graduates to enter the labor market instead of living on welfare. That not only will decrease their dependence on the public purse but, even more important, on the obscurantist and controlling rabbis who are determined to isolate their followers from Israeli society.

At the same time, Netanyahu is likely to be caught between his two major coalition partners for their share of the straitened national budget. Just as in the United States, the growing size of the deficit has been a political issue in Israel and was a factor in forcing the prime minister to call the elections. From one side, Netanyahu now faces demands to transfer housing assistance from the large families of the ultra-Orthodox to middle-class voters who are squeezed by skyrocketing house prices. The Yesh Apid will also demand higher taxes from Israel's family conglomerates and high-tech oligarchs. Simultaneously, the Habait Hayudi religious nationalists will likely resist lower subsidies to the yeshivot and to the West Bank settlements that are a principal bone of contention between Washington and Jerusalem.

These political maneuvers have very bearing on the broader influence of religion on life in Israel. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest and only kosher food will be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages, although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.

But the veto power of the rabbis in politics has been blunted and may finally be broken. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments from Israel's broad ideological spectrum of parties. They may even try to reform Israel's political system so they will never again be forced to kowtow to the religious parties.

This all began in 1948 when Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce. For a generation, Jerusalem's Meah Sharim district, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, remained a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect in its traditional black garb of the vanished East European ghetto would wither away in modern Israel. Instead, they became a powerful minority determined to set the tone of society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry had to tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.

Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel's enemies.

American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are "many shades of black." But the deepest shade had the most political influence and in consequence enjoyed the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City -- sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses -- would agree to a public subsidy for the 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or allow almost 100,000 able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students to escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.

The prospective demise of this religious regime has infuriated its political advocates. None has been more powerful or outspoken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served as Chairman of the Finance Committee in the last parliament and was a master at diverting funds to the ultras' causes. Now he is accusing Netanyahu of betraying his former allies. In the snakepit of Israeli politics, it could be payback time for Bibi.

The rabbi has warned that Netanyahu will soon "be sorry" for deceiving him and the other representatives of the ultras by "shamefully" leaving them out of power. In an article in the popular daily Yediot Acharonot, Gafni admitted that although he was supposed to oversee all expenditures approved formally by the Knesset during his Finance Committee chairmanship, money was nevertheless dispensed almost every day "under the radar" -- his words -- for the benefit of Netanyahu's Likud party.

Since Gafni has blown the whistle on what are politely called "unofficial" budgets, that almost certainly means the end of such disbursements, not only for the religious parties but for those in the new coalition when it takes office later this month. The technicians at Finance Ministry were fully aware of the tricks used to pad budgets and transfer government money off the books, but they dared not clash with any Likud finance minister or with Gafni's own Finance Committee.

That leaves Gafni holding a powerful hand that could embarrass Netanyahu. The rabbi made it clear that he would not hesitate to harass the ruling parties with substantial information that he had accumulated through the years about tampering with the budget. His most powerful card most likely would be the payments believed to have been funneled through Bibi's former government to support illegal West Bank settlements, for example those that posted a few armed families in trailers on Palestinian hilltops and then spread, seeking official recognition.

The establishment and expansion of these and other more organized settlements is viewed by the Obama administration as a principal barrier to any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has always insisted his government never supported these freelance settlers. It is not hard to imagine how a disclosure that it had covertly done so would put Netanyahu at a disadvantage if the news comes out while he is dealing with Obama, who has never trusted him anyway.

Portions of this post originally appeared as part of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLEarning's Visiting Scribe series.

The writers are the authors of 'The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation,' published this month by Overlook Press.