How can the next Israeli government bridge the growing secular-religious divide? S.Y. Agnon, Israel’s national novelist and winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize, dedicated his magnum opus Only Yesterday to portraying the divide between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Set in the final days of Ottoman rule before World War I, Agnon’s story follows its protagonist’s tragic journey from the ocean-side, young, free-love and literary environment of Tel Aviv to the hilly, closed, sexually repressed and rabbi-controlled Jerusalem.
Although published in 1945, Agnon’s story is just as relevant for understanding Israel’s present-day divide between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The horses and carriages of his day gave way to cars, but Yitzhak Kumer, Agnon’s alter-ego pioneer, would have no problem adapting to contemporary reality.
Increasingly, demographic trends have made Jerusalem more religious and Tel Aviv the bastion of liberalism. Many seculars have moved out of Jerusalem, leaving neighborhood after neighborhood to the Orthodox. Most non-kosher restaurants have gone with them. The current mayor, Nir Barkat, is a secular businessman who encourages students to live in the old city center in order to recreate a more balanced demography. But it’s an uphill battle, when elsewhere in Jerusalem women sit at the backs of buses, and advertisers avoid female faces on billboards. The convenience store on King George Street, at the heart of Jerusalem’s center, is probably named “24/6.”
In Tel Aviv, supermarkets operate 24/7, and the city long ago adopted a hedonistic lifestyle, which, along with the ever-rising cost of housing, drove the Orthodox out of town. Generation after generation, Tel Aviv liberals are drifting further from tradition and religion. Today, a small but growing number of parents ask themselves whether to perform a brit on their newborn sons. This question was unthinkable a generation ago.
The opposing aspirations of seculars, seeking to turn Israel into a westernized liberal republic, and the Orthodox, struggling to preserve the millennial traditions of diaspora, have led the country through numerous confrontations and compromises. The religious conflict comes to the fore in Israeli politics whenever the external conflict is relatively calm. Its latest manifestation, the question of whether the Haredim should be subject to the military draft, peaked several months ago and subsided when Iran and Gaza took precedence on the public agenda. Israel’s proportional representation system gives disproportionate power to the “religious parties,” who received rabbinic control over marriage, divorce and immigration policy and who have sought to preserve elements of tradition—such as no buses and trains on Shabbat—in the public sphere.
Having lost the battle for Tel Aviv and other secular cities, religious politicians have focused instead on fortifying their age-old autonomy. Under the 1953 State Education Act, Israel established two separate religious school systems—a government-run one for “national religious” (modern Orthodox), and an “independent” one for the ultra-Orthodox. Currently, the annual growth rate of ultra-Orthodox elementary schools is 4.1 percent, compared with 3.1 percent in national religious schools and 1.7 percent in general secular public schools.
Ultra-Orthodox men are supposed to study and teach the Torah, rather than work. Most live on welfare, and their politicians work hard to protect their subsidies. Moreover, their schools don’t teach math and English to boys beyond seventh grade, which makes it all the more difficult for them to be employed in a knowledge-based society. So far, they have been able to reject all efforts to impose the “core curriculum” on their school system.
The most outstanding preference for the ultra-Orthodox, of course, is the draft deferment for yeshiva students, who today comprise 13.8 percent of candidates for military service. (The modern Orthodox serve, but many sign up for a special track combining service with rabbinic studies.) In February 2011, following years of avoiding this political hot potato, Israel’s Supreme Court nullified the yeshiva deferment law, ordering the government to draft new legislation by August. The Court decision led to an early election, and the summer deadline has since passed.
The next cabinet, then, will have to find a compromise. Two new parties, led by former journalist Yair Lapid and former Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, call for drafting the Haredi youth and getting them into the workforce. Both will probably join the next coalition but are unlikely to defeat Shas and United Torah Judaism over the deferment. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to stay on as prime minister, is not going to risk his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and will probably seek a compromise based on some sort of wordplay. For starters, on December 9, the cabinet approved the recruitment of 1,300 Haredi youth to “civil service,” an easy substitute for the draft.
The influence of religion over politics, however, does not end with ultra-Orthodox autonomy. Since 1967, the modern Orthodox have adopted the West Bank settlements—which they see as fulfilling a divine edict—as their cause célèbre. The modern Orthodox (known here as the “national religious” or “woven yarmulkes” community) were once a companion of Israel’s labor movement. But they have grown more observant, as seen in the strict separation of boys and girls in schools and extracurricular activities. Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, the national religious support a strong state, but both groups share a distaste for liberal civil rights.
The modern Orthodox community has consolidated its political power in the current campaign. The revived national religious party, Ha Bayit Ha Yehudi, The Jewish Home, aims to pull Netanyahu further to the right and against any compromise over the settlements. Its stance is strengthened by the growing power of religious settlers within Likud rank and file.
Given their high birthrate, strong voter turnout and dominant position within the right-wing bloc, religious politicians are going to play a key role in Israel’s next government. And Jerusalem will continue to drift apart from Tel Aviv.