What Israel’s new election reveals about the struggle over Jewishness

Benjamin Netanyahu has hit a snag that could derail his chances of becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Israel.

Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and dissolved parliament on May 29. That means Israel must hold fresh elections, which are scheduled for Sept. 17.

Netanyahu is the leader of the Likud party which received a majority of votes in April’s election. Unlike the U.S., in Israel people vote for parties, not candidates. The winning party is then invited to form a governing coalition with other parties.

So, what got in the way of Netanyahu’s government? I’d say it was a struggle over what it means to be Jewish.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the draft

I’m an anthropologist who studies questions of religion, politics, identity and conflict in Israel and Palestine.

For some time now, there has been a conflict regarding the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The Haredim are strictly observant Jews who have struggled to hold on their traditions. They are followers of a range of theologies and many different rabbinic leaders, associated with particular Jewish communities in different parts of the world.

For members of the Haredi community studying the sacred texts is paramount, a commandment, and a means of protecting the continuity of the Jewish people. The Haredim secured certain promises from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, prior to the establishment of the state in 1948, that would protect their community and their way of life.

The agreement exempted young Haredi men from military duty that is compulsory for other young Israelis, as a way for the Haredi community to study Torah, a practice central to their way of life.

Compulsory draft

While the Haredim make up a small percentage of the Israeli Jewish population, about 10%, their numbers are growing. And, animosity toward them has also grown over time.

Secular Israelis complain that Haredim take advantage of social welfare but do not contribute to the military or the economy. Haredim often have large families, and because many of the men are primarily engaged in studying Torah, their wives work to support their families. The families often live below the poverty line.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, celebrate the holiday of Purim. AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
Recently many politicians – both on the right and left – have moved to capitalize on anti-religious sentiment among secular Israeli Jews. They have called to include Haredim in the draft.

This controversy played a key role in Netanyahu’s failure to form a governing coalition.

The party of Netanyahu’s former minister of defense, the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman, proposed a bill in the Israeli parliament to draft Haredim.

Israeli Jewish and Druze men are conscripted for three years, at the age of 18. Women are required to serve for two years. Following mandatory service, the reserve service obligation is up to age 51 for men and age 24 for women.

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, consists of 120 seats. In order to form a government, Netanyahu needed at least 61 members in his coalition. Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party held five crucial seats.

Thousands of Haredim protested against the bill.