Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Secular Jews Sick Of Ultraorthodox Extremism Putting Jewish Bidnis Out In These Streets

FT  |  Many say the crisis was triggered by Netanyahu’s decision to form an electoral alliance with extreme ultranationalists previously on the fringes of politics. 

The divisive veteran premier, who is on trial for corruption, returned to power in December by manufacturing a coalition dependent on ultraorthodox parties and ideologically driven religious Zionist leaders. 

These include Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in 2007 was convicted of inciting for racism and is now Netanyahu’s national security minister, and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, a self-declared homophobe whose Religious Zionist party is one of the main drivers behind the legal reform. 

Both men live in settlements in the occupied West Bank that most of the international community consider illegal. They represent the religious nationalist settler movement and support the annexation of Palestinian territory. Ultraorthodox leaders hold other key posts, including the interior and religious affairs ministries. 

After last year’s election — the fifth in less than four years — the coalition’s 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset are split between Likud, with 32, and the ultraorthodox and religious Zionist parties.

In coalition agreements with the parties, Netanyahu committed to a number of policies that would have a far-reaching impact on Israeli society, including expanding the powers of Rabbinical courts and tightening rules around religious conversions and immigration. He also pledged to annex the West Bank “while choosing the timing and considering the national and international interests of the state of Israel”. 

Since winning the election last year, the coalition has drafted legislation on a number of fronts, ranging from the legal reforms to changes that allow people convicted of crimes, but spared jail time, to serve as ministers. It has also legalised nine Jewish settler outposts deep in the West Bank, which even Israel had deemed to be built illegally. 

Simcha Rothman, a MP with Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party, who heads the Knesset’s justice committee and is an architect of the planned judicial changes, considers the moment a “great opportunity” for “the believers”.

“What brings together the ultraorthodox, a religious Zionist like me [and] a secular like Netanyahu . . . is the deep belief that Israel is and should always be the homeland of the Jewish people,” he says. Rothman says the legal reforms are needed to rein in the “unchecked and unbalanced” powers of judges. He blames the Supreme Court for having a “big part in radicalising” Palestinians of Israeli citizenship, and argues that in its current form it can block parents’ autonomy over how they educate their children, and even economic policies. 

He complains that Jewish aspects of the state have been eroded, with “progressive elites” staging a “power grab in culture and academia”. He says an Israeli child can spend a year in school without opening a Bible and condemns a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that it was OK for people to bring non-kosher food into hospitals during Passover. 

In his mind, “Israel was helpless against trends that would make Israel lose its Jewish identity”. “I think it’s time for the public in Israel to decide if they want to be a country ruled by its people or by its judges,” Rothman says. “A constitutional moment is always some kind of a crisis, but it’s very important.” The government’s goal, he adds, is to “bring Israel back to normality”.

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