Israel’s right-wing political takeover by Menachem Begin is often dubbed “The 1977 revolution.” This week, however, we experienced a far more significant revolution—”The 2022 revolution”—in which the religious, for the first time, have come to power. Based on the winners and losers of the election for the 25th Knesset, it seems certain that the new government will have a majority of religiously observant members. Of the four parties set to join forces in the upcoming coalition, three are religious (two are Charedi), including half the total number of seats (32 of 64). If we include several religious Likkud Knesset members, we reach a clear religious majority. Netanyanu, for the first time in his life, will be at the secular extreme of the new government.
Netanyanu, for the first time in his life, will be at the secular extreme of the new government
For long decades, the Charedi parties were considered the illegitimate children of Israeli politics, while Ben-Gvir and his Chardal (national-Charedi) friends were perpetually scratching the electoral threshold without quite making it. Now, however, matters have turned about 180 degrees. From number-fillers at best, Charedi parties have become a substantial part of the ruling majority, and the entire government can be classified as religious/Charedi. Just several years ago, nobody would have entertained the thought. It is truly a revolution.
The prominent agenda of the new government will be Israel’s status as a Jewish State. As election results demonstrate, most of Israel’s Jewish population favors a set of arrangements that defines the “Jewishness” of the State of Israel, including Shabbat, Kashrut, marriage laws, and distinctly Jewish public sphere. However, over many years key offices and institutions—education, culture, law, and the senior echelons of Israel’s civil service—were controlled by a left-wing minority opposed to anything connected to religion. A good illustration, elaborated on by Avrum Tomer, is Israel’s Education Ministry. Notwithstanding long years of right-wing governments, Israel’s educational curriculum continued its long slide toward less Torah and religious content. In Israel, explained Erez Tadmor in his popular book, “you vote right but you get left.”
The incoming government will put a stop to this. For the first time in Israeli political history, the religious have an opportunity to reverse the secular trend led over seventy years by Israel’s traditional elites. Members of the new government do not belong to the secular establishment, nor are they surrendered to it, as were the old Mafdal (religious-Zionist) party and Likkud princes such as Reuven Rivlin and Benny Begin. They are proudly religious.
This is the opportunity that stands before the new government. It has the capacity for governance, for the majority rule of democratic representatives rather than an oligarchical dictatorship of progressive elites
The new government will not be a coercive one. Unlike some of the vicious and unscrupulous remarks made by some on the Israeli left, no individual is about to lose his rights and freedoms, and claims to the contrary are based on emotions at best. Nobody on the religious right is interested in coercing religious observance, and neither Charedim nor anyone else wants Israel to become Iran (or even Turkey, for that matter). Personal freedoms will not be threatened, but the makeup of curriculum authors, academic commissioners, cultural boards, and committee members for every issue under the sun will diversify and shift over time.
This is the opportunity that stands before the new government. It has the capacity for governance, for the majority rule of democratic representatives rather than an oligarchical dictatorship of progressive elites. Decision-makers ought to be connected to the people rather than detached from them, and a connection with Israel’s people means a connection to Jewish tradition and Jewish destiny. The opportunity, writ large—and without meaning to sound messianic—is to take a step toward becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Yet, these achievements cannot be attained without overcoming several hurdles. Below, I will focus on the two most significant issues that Charedi parties will need to resolve to realize, even partially, the potential of the upcoming government.
Are We Ready to Rule?
Notwithstanding the symbolic importance of the recent political triumph, there remains ample room for concern about the short-term future. The religious parties, particularly the Charedi ones, have over several decades become accustomed to lobbyist politics at best—the colloquial shtadlanus—and to tribal maneuvering at worst. The long list of embarrassing statements made by incoming UTJ chairman Yitzchak Goldknopf, most of them indicating one or both political attitudes, has caused widespread discomfort and raises the troubling question of whether the first religious government of Israel might become an unfortunate spectacle of Chillul Hashem.
The “authorities” are us, and we need to ensure the long-term prosperity of the State rather than spending down resources for short-term goals. If Charedi representatives fail to do so and continue to follow tribal strategies they stand the risk of fueling already existing tensions to new levels of animosity
Among incoming Charedi Knesset members, some continue to perceive themselves in the traditional image of Jews seeking to procure all they can from unjust and unscrupulous non-Jewish authorities—lehatzil miyadam, as the halachic expression states, “to rescue what we can from their hands.” But this attitude will backfire. The authorities are “us,” not “them,” and our goals must include ensuring the long-term prosperity of the State rather than spending down resources for short-term needs. If Charedi representatives fail to do so and continue to follow tribal strategies they stand the risk of fueling already existing tensions to new levels of animosity. As representatives of religion, the backlash will not be limited to Charedim but will apply, Heaven forbid, to Judaism in general.
It is up to our representatives to rise to the challenge and take responsibility. It is also time for us, the general Charedi public, to do the same. We need to change our own mindset and demand accountability from our representatives. We are no longer a lone sheep among seventy wolves. The familiar narrative whereby Charedi politics aim to protect the faithful flock from the dangers of hateful predators does not hold water. If we need proof, a glance at Israel’s electoral map should do the trick. UTJ has more seats than Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, and Shas is electorally far stronger than (the left-wing) Avoda and Meretz combined. We are the majority; both our representatives and we need to internalize the responsibilities this implies.
If we succeed, this moment could be the beginning of many years of essential service in Israel’s government. If we don’t, we are likely to lose the opportunity all too quickly. It is up to us.
Stop the Tribalism
The most significant threat to the Charedi parties is the tribalism deeply entrenched in Charedi political culture. Tribalism, of course, has no special connection with Judaism. It has defined human interaction from times of antiquity and being a primordial and natural tendency, it continues to thrive in the absence of a strong political culture that provides a counterbalance. The tribal disposition has two main expressions. One is nepotism, a politics that protects and promotes the strong while oppressing the weak, and which includes no small measure of corruption. The second is a confrontational and often violent approach to rival tribes.
In a tribal political environment, the strong—those with the right family names and the right connections—will always thrive at the expense of the weak. The Torah’s ideas of fairness and equality, of “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike” (Vayikra 24:22), are entirely foreign to the tribal mentality. The case of Charedi preschool teachers who were trodden underfoot by political machinery serves as a good example of the moral distortions of a tribal group: female preschool teachers, who find their place somewhere near the bottom of the tribal food chain, were left unprotected at the mercy of those ready to exploit them. By contrast, the same political machinery was ready to lend its weight and support to a woman who had injured her female students in the most contemptible ways only because she was a well-connected school principal.
In tribal politics, the only law is the benefit of the tribe elders. Those in positions of power will be given every concession and benefit, while those lower down the order will have to comply with the standard set of rules. Such politics represent the diametric opposite of a Torah education that stresses the good of the weak, the poor, the orphan, the stranger, and the widow.
In the tribal mindset, the national arena is merely an opportunity to meet the needs of the tribe and promote its success
The second defining characteristic of tribal politics is the concern for tribe members alone and the delegitimization of those who threaten it. Whenever a conflict between groups arises, tribal politics are vengeful and resentful, and they know no mercy. The only relevant consideration is the tribal good, which serves as a potential justification for any and every atrocity. The elders and followers of a rival tribe can be subject to public humiliation and disgrace; their source of income can be denied, and all will be done to debase, degrade, devalue, and demean those who threaten the tribe’s prosperity.
Moreover, even when there is no concrete threat to the tribe, tribal politics are entirely self-centered. They do not know such concepts as “nation,” “state,” or “citizenship.” They think exclusively in terms of one tribe pitted against others. In the tribal mindset, the national arena is merely an opportunity to meet the needs of the tribe and promote its flourishing.
Sadly, Charedi politics are riddled with telltale signs of intense tribalism. The primordial disposition toward exclusive care for tribe members is alive and well in the Charedi mindset, and in inter-tribe disputes all available resources are deployed to crush the rival tribe, be it the alternative Gur faction, “working Charedim,” or the dissident Jerusalem Faction. Internally, nepotism and deep concern for those at the top of the social ladder are rife; the Leifer episode and Walder’s bane are but the tip of the iceberg.
On a symbolic level, the most outrageous instance of Charedi political tribalism is the campaign messaging of Degel Ha-Torah. In the last elections, the main thrust of the campaign involved a picture of the Ponivezh Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, with the caption “we shall heed his voice,” alongside the election slogan “Our entire will is doing their will.” The ordinary “You shall do all they instruct” was apparently insufficient this time, leading party campaigners to employ Torah wording reserved for Hashem alone. Rabbi Edelstein, who stands at the top of our tribal pyramid, was raised to Divine status, no less. Our will is no longer doing Hashem’s, but rather “our entire will is doing their will.”
This abuse of sacred texts goes hand in hand with such offenses as discrimination against Sephardi students, ruthless campaigns against perceived threats, and other undesirable phenomena that continue notwithstanding the best efforts of rabbinic leadership to quell them. They are the unfortunate result of a tribal disposition that left to its own devices can be extremely harmful. How, in the context of the new government, can it be overcome? The answer, mainly, is with some external assistance.
Among the tasks of the incoming government will thus be to rehabilitate Israel’s basic regulatory bodies and ensure they can perform their crucial function of preventing the infiltration of tribal culture into government ranks
State institutions include a range of regulatory bodies that aim to check, balance, and critique government actions. These include Knesset committees, the prosecution, the state comptroller, and, of course, free media. These bodies, in an ideal situation, ought to combat tribal tendencies and ensure that the government does its work based on clear and objective standards, with transparency, and with full accountability. Unfortunately, certain players have manipulated these bodies in recent years to achieve narrow political interests, turning them, to a degree, into vehicles for undermining the legitimacy of an elected government. This, of course, can be highly damaging in the long term.
Among the tasks of the incoming government will thus be to rehabilitate Israel’s basic regulatory bodies and ensure they can perform their crucial function of preventing the infiltration of tribal culture into government ranks. It is hard to imagine the Charedi parties and representatives themselves working to achieve this aim, but coalition partners must take responsibility to ensure that the different bodies are functioning as they should.
The second trap that awaits Charedi parties is the lobby mindset: shtadlanus. Over many years, Charedi politics have been characterized by a narrative of “a single lamb among seventy wolves.” This mindset, imported to Israel from the harsh political realities of Russia, Poland, and other countries of Eastern and Western Europe, dictates an attitude of salvaging whatever can be salvaged from the hands of our oppressors. Observing recent Charedi election campaigns, including the current one, one could plausibly think that Gafni and Eichler are a modern-day version of Mordechai and Esther, imploring Achashveroch to save the Jews from Haman’s evil decrees.
This, of course, is a distorted description of Israel’s reality: today, Charedi numbers far exceed those of Israel’s anti-religious seculars, and we certainly don’t act as helpless lambs. But moreover, the attitude itself is deeply damaging in that it exempts Charedim from taking responsibility—first and foremost for themselves and also for the rest of Israel’s citizens.
The mindset described above detaches Israel’s economic, defense, social, and cultural condition from Charedi awareness. We are thus absolved of responsibility: Preoccupied with saving ourselves from pursuers, we surely cannot lead the country
Discussions around Charedi responsibility often focus on the economic arena. The claim, which to a large degree reflects the Charedi mindset, is that Charedim do not see themselves as responsible for Israel’s economic future—not that of Charedi society nor, of course, that of broader Israel. But the issue goes beyond economics. The mindset described above detaches Israel’s economic, defense, social, and cultural condition from Charedi awareness. We are thus absolved of responsibility: Preoccupied with saving ourselves from pursuers, we surely cannot lead the country. “They,” the other tribes (or “the Goyim”) are supposed to run Israel. It is up to Achashverosh, not the Charedim, to place a tax on the different provinces under his rule.
There is no reason why this situation should continue perpetually. Of course, Charedim are justifiably wary of becoming fully integrated into Israeli society, including academic institutions whose values are distant from those of Charedi society—the secular elites remain kings of the campuses—and a culture that Charedim consider to be corrosive and promiscuous. Yet, this does not mean that Charedi society must remain segregated and provincial. If we’ve made it to government as a proud part of Israel’s majority, we can surely suggest good alternatives to secular academia. Rather than fortifying our isolationism and denying ourselves the privilege of taking responsibility for Israel’s physical and spiritual future, we need to take the opportunity to ensure that we can rise to these responsibilities without undermining all that defines the social goods we treasure. This is not an impossibility. It is a must.
On a practical note, the incoming government with Netanyahu at its helm needs to demand active involvement from its Charedi partners. Among Charedi Knesset members are excellent and talented politicians who can provide a great service on behalf of Israel’s citizens—all of them. The question of whether they do so or whether they take the familiar route of warding off secular attacks and looking after self-interest depends, to a high degree, on the internal dynamic of the coalition. Charedi representatives must internalize that entry into government as part of the ruling majority demands a change in attitude not merely on the part of their partners. They, too, need to change their attitude; and better sooner rather than later.
 See https://hashiloach.org.il/post-zionism-and-post-excellence/
 See https://mida.org.il/2021/01/21/%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%A7-%D7%9E%D7%A1%D7%A4%D7%A8-%D7%9E%D7%93%D7%95%D7%A2-%D7%90%D7%AA%D7%94-%D7%9E%D7%A6%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A2-%D7%99%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9F/.
 In a piece published by Yisrael Eichler in Mishpacha Magazine [Hebrew], he declared that we (the Charedim) need to learn from the ways of Mansour Abbas, and to milk the State as much as we can. “We desire no positions,” he stated. “We only demand achievement for the group we represent, the type they can go to the grocery store with.” See: https://he.mishpacha.com/column/%d7%9c%d7%90-%d7%a9%d7%a8%d7%a8%d7%94-%d7%aa%d7%9b%d7%9c%d7%a1/.
 See https://www.bhol.co.il/news/749512.
 See https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/162251/.
 Yisrael Eichler’s column, above note 3.
Picture: Amos ben Gershom, La’am.