With the new government in line...

Hiddush analyzes the impact of the new coalition agreements on religion/state in Israel

Little and unsatisfactory reference to religious freedom, Equality in shouldering civic burden obligation to serve only starts in 4 years, in the meantime, full exemption to yeshiva students over the age of 22. Potential dramatic cuts in subsidies to ultra-Orthodox sector.

Bayit Hayehudi party meeting, (R-L) Party chair Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked. Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90Bayit Hayehudi party meeting, (R-L) Party chair Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked. Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

In Israel, one can distinguish between two main categories in the area religion and state that have generated much debate since the State's establishment; freedom of (and from) religion on one hand and equality in sharing the civic burden on the other. As Hiddush has highlighted recently matters of religion and state have played a key role in public opinion and discourse leading up to the elections and significantly impacted voting trends and coalition negotiations.

The coalition agreements reflect the heavy pressure that Yesh Atid and Ha’Bayit Hayehudi brought to bear in the regarding "equality in bearing the civic burden" and related topics (such as mandatory core curriculum, a necessary step in integrating ultra-Orthodox males into the workforce) but regrettably not in the area of religious freedom. It is essential to understand this distinction which demonstrates the need to maintain both internal pressures in Israel and from world Jewry to advance this critical principle.

While not directly connected to matters of religion and state, it behooves us to state with satisfaction the explicit emphasis made in the agreements regarding the battle against racism and ensuring equal rights for Israel's minorities.

Hiddush has analyzed the coalition agreements, their appendices and the basic principles of the new government, and has provided detailed insights as to their impact on religion and state in Israel. The framework chosen for promoting equality in military/national service complexly integrates four previously discussed potential scenarios. According to the agreed-upon plan, mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox males will only be launched in four years and all current yeshiva students over the age of 22 will be fully exempt from service. For 18-22 year-olds, there will be ambitious drafting goals set for the next four years (3500 by 2016) but they will be carried out by incentives and not sanctions, so it is highly questionable that they will be achieved. 1,800 elite yeshiva students will be entitled to receive military exemptions and increased scholarships for their studies. The IDF will have the prerogative of selecting who will enlist and all others (excluding 1,800 elite students) will be required to perform civil service, predominately in public safety and security agencies. When the government applies the mandatory service requirement, economic sanctions will be levied against draft dodgers and yeshivas the number of students who dodge the draft passes beyond a certain threshold. The aforementioned numbers should be seen in the context of the following: currently approximately 8,500 ultra-Orthodox males reach the age of 18 annually.

According to Hiddush's analysis, the timetable for the plan is the main weakness of Yesh Atid's agreement. Implementation of mandatory service was postponed by four years, namely, to the end of the new government's term (assuming that it will complete a full term which is not self-evident) the core curriculum plan was postponed by two years and it is not clear if Yesh Atid will have the political clout to enforce the implementation when the time arrives.

Coalition agreements include some very positive developments at the same time raise grave concern. The agreements put a heavy responsibility on Lapid's "There is a Future" (Yesh Atid) party to ensure that issues scheduled for future implementation will indeed be realized. Israel should not miss this historic opportunity for a transformation in the area of religious freedom.

A major provision in the agreements with far-reaching economic ramifications deals with the excessive subsidies enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox sector in the past when they were a key partner in the government coalitions. The ultra-Orthodox parties were excluded from the current coalition and all thekey ministerial and Knesset positions they controlled will be in non-Haredi hands, mostly those of the Zionist Orthodox Ha’Bayit Hayehudi. For example, more than half of the subsidies for affordable housing [and gradually – in other areas of State support as well] from the Housing Ministry, previously controlled by Shas, were allocated to ultra-Orthodox families, a sector that constitutes approximately 9% of the Israel's population. The coalition agreements stipulate that a major consideration in eligibility for affordable housing will not be the amount years married, but instead it will be based on "realizing the families potential for gainful earning" (the unanimous recommendations of the Tractenberg public commission that studied Israel's socio-economic challenges set the standard based on an able-bodied couple who works at least at a level of 125% between the two of them) If this dramatic shift is realized, state funding for yeshiva students will be dramatically reduced and encourage them to seek work.

As opposed to the great detail the agreements provide about equality in shouldering the civic burden and budgetary considerations, the coalition agreements and the basic principles of the government are much quieter with regards to religious freedom, such as civil and non-Orthodox marriages, recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, or public transportation on Shabbat. These issues have been explicitly promised by Yair Lapid to Diaspora audiences when speaking about the elections. With regards to the segregation of women, the agreement settles for a general statement that the government will handle the problem and will consider using legal avenues regarding gender segregation in the public domain. For the first time in Israeli political history, the basic principles of this new government do not include a clause promising to maintain the "status quo" on matters of religion and state. Though there is potential for change through this channel, Ha’Bayit Hayehudi's coalition agreement requires that any legislative changes on matters of religion will require the consent of "all members of the coalition," which makes them the gate-keepers for any positive changes in legislation for religious freedom and pluralism.

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President noted that, "the fact that religious freedom is hardly addressed in the coalition agreements is a source of grave concern and may indicate the limited value that Yesh Atid actually attaches to this topic, as opposed the great importance its constituency attached to it. It may also indicate that Yesh Atid has not fully resolved its own internal differences of opinion on these subjects. While Yair Lapid made sweeping public pronouncements of support for religious pluralism and freedom, some of his party leadership, such as Rabbi Shai Piron, number two on the party's list, may not be fully on board on some of those issues. While the "voiding the status quo" clause in the coalition agreements is encouraging, it was replaced by a veto power granted to the Ha’Bayit Hayehudi party on any progress in legislation regarding religion. The public's great expectations from Yair Lapid's party to advance religious freedom may fizzle out. We fear that Lapid's call for civil marriage and divorce, public transportation on Shabbat, and equal recognition of all Jewish streams' conversions may turn out to be empty promises. Yesh Atid should not miss this historic opportunity created by its voters to finally realize Israel's founding promise for religious freedom."

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