Dr. Josef Olmert
Last updated: 22 January, 2013

On religion, religiosity and Israeli politics

Religion is a potent and ever growing factor in Israeli politics, writes professor Josef Olmert in this analysis ahead of the country’s general election.

Religion and state is a loaded issue in Israeli politics. Nothing new about that, as the question of what it means to have a Jewish state has run across Jewish history from time immemorial to this very moment, and without any clear solution. It would be too presumptuous of me to delve in detail into this intricate problem in this brief article, but suffice it to say that religion has always been an important facet of Israeli politics, with religious parties a constant fixture in the political landscape. And the current campaign is no exception.

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All the polls taken in Israel these days give parties which define themselves as religious 33-35 seats in a Knesset comprising of 120 members. Currently, those parties have only 24 seats, so the trend seems to point to a dramatic rise in their power. Is it that suddenly, without people noticing it, so many Israelis have become born again Jews , or is it something else? Looking further at the polls may give us an answer as to the possible allocation of seats, but more importantly will turn attention to a less known aspect of Israeli politics, and the role of religion in them, and that is the power of religiosity, by which I refer to many Israeli voters who do not fall into the standard definitions of being religious, but are still heavily influenced by religious symbols, adhere to and admire Rabbis, and altogether prefer Israel to be more Jewish-oriented, if not outright a religious state.

First, the addition of 8-10 new seats goes almost exclusively to one party, the Jewish Home/National Unity party, led by the rising new star of Israeli politics, Naftali Bennett. He picks all those seats on the expense of Likud Beitenu, the combination of Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel is our Home), a venture that does not seem to deliver the expected goods to its two architects. This is where the story gets somewhat complicated, as Israeli politics tends to be.

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Bennett is a young, successful and charismatic former businessman, who at the age of 33 sold his hi-tech company for the modest’ amount of USD 145 million and since then managed to be Netanyahu’s bureau chief, the executive director of the Settlers council, and since the fall of 2012 the leader of the party which has 5 seats in the current Knesset and is slated to be the second or third largest party after the election with 13-15 seats. The fact that so many voters can move from a presumed secular/nationalist party such as Likud to a religious party whose leader is subjected to the guidance, more accurately, rulings of Rabbis, is the real intriguing story, one which leads us to explore religiosity and politics in Israel.

Sometimes, complex realities can be better explained by everyday life stories. Akko is a town north of Haifa with a sizeable Arab minority and a Jewish majority composed mainly of Sepharadic Jews (Jews from Arab/Muslim countries). The town has a soccer team, which this year is doing very badly. So, when a soccer team does badly in a European country, for example, the management sacks the coach, or he himself changes tactics, new players are being bought, current ones are being sold etc.

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In sum, professional changes are taking place, which all have to do with soccer. But in Akko, the coach took his players to pray on the graves of Tzadikim, old sages credited with miracle-making powers… and then, the team played on the Sabbath, clearly violating the basic rules of the Jewish religion. So, who are those players? Who is the coach? They are primarily Sepharadic Jews, who do not fall into the traditional category of being religious, but are still heavily traditional and influenced by religious symbols and values. There are so many of them in Israel, mostly Sepharadic, and for them to choose between Netanyahu or Bennett or Rabbi Ovadia Josef, the leader of the Religious Sepharadic Shas party, is simply to choose between members of the same family. And just to end the story about the soccer team, it is so common, that Israeli footballers tell the press now, that surely they want Netanyahu to be the next Prime Minister, but they still prefer Bennett or Shas to be represented in the Knesset, and then they drive on the Sabbath to their game…

So, this is cultural and religious at the same time, and voters who fall into the categories of being fully religious or ‘’just ‘’ traditionalist are at least 40 % of the Israeli electorate. Add up to them the Russian Jews who vote Likud Beitenu en masse and you have the results to be published tomorrow.

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On paper, Netanyahu cannot, judging by the results of polls, establish a new coalition without the religious parties. His scope of maneuverability is very narrow, and even if, by whatever chance, the polls will prove wrong, and he may be able to turn to the Center-Left parties, he will still have to face up to potential rebellion within his own bloc, coming from religious members of his caucus. Religion is, as can be clearly seen, a potent and ever growing factor in Israeli politics.

The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not necessarily correspond with those of Your Middle East.