Observations of an expat: Israel’s political demographics

Supreme Court changes. West Bank settlers. Fighting on Temple Mount and renewed missile exchanges between Israel, Lebanon and Gaza.

They are the result of growing divisions within Israeli society and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is as much a reflection of these realities as he is a driver and exploiter of the splits.

Roughly a quarter of Israel’s 9.2 million Jews are Orthodox. Another quarter regard themselves as Secular. The 50 percent balance are a variety of in-between shades which means a more or less even split between the two sides of the debate.

And it is a debate. A vicious and increasingly divisive one. Virtually everyone is agreed on Israel’s role as the Jewish homeland. A big majority support the 2018 law which defines Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and were pleased that the Israeli Supreme Court upheld that law with a 10-1 vote.

But there are heated arguments about what should be the values of the state of Israel and how to achieve them.

One big difference is the special treatment handed out to religious Jews. Until 2014 they were exempt from military service– a big deal in a country which prides itself on a semi-professional citizen’s army. In that year the Supreme Court ruled the exemption unconstitutional. They have, however, allowed postponements for the purposes of religious studies. They have also allowed the exemption for Orthodox Jewish women to continue.

Unsurprisingly, secular Jews are angry that they bear the brunt of physically protecting their homeland.

The situation is exacerbated by generous welfare subsidies paid to Orthodox men to allow them full-time study of the Torah. Sixty percent of Orthodox Jewish men live on welfare compared to 10 percent in the population as a whole.

The Supreme Court has come to symbolise not only an independent judiciary but the interests of secular Israel whose values appear to be ignored by increasingly right-wing Netanyahu whose aim is to cling to power by forming increasingly right-wing alliances with Orthodox Jewish parties.

The Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, claim that the court is ignoring “the people’s will”. A case in point involves Aryeh Dei, leader of the far-right Shas Party which is a member of the current Netanyahu-led coalition. Since 1999, Dei has been in and out of prison and parliament as a result of fraud convictions.

This did not, however, stop Netanyahu from bringing Dei into his Cabinet as Interior Minister on the grounds that his party secured 400,000 votes. But it did prompt the Supreme Court to block the appointment. The prime minister, said Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, “was not entitled to ignore Mr Dei’s accumulation of serious corruption offences.”

The row over Dei’s appointment was the impetus for the government’s latest and boldest attempt to curb the independence of the court. It was also the catalyst for hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protect the judiciary.

Netanyahu has called for a month-long “time out” for tempers to cool and talks to take place. This was an olive branch to secular Israel. To balance it, he appointed another hardliner—Itamar Ben Gvir– Interior Minister with expanded powers over the police.

Ben Gvir is leader of the Jewish Power Party, the direct political descendant of the court-banned Kach Party which advocated the forcible deportation of those considered enemies of the state of Israel. It is Ben Gvir who ordered the police onto Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the middle of Ramadan, ostensibly to protect Islamic worshippers from Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The Arab worshippers, however, did not see it that way. They viewed it in the context of Ben Gvir’s chequered past and the constitutional debate. So they attacked the police. The police fought back. The Gaza-based Palestinians fired missiles in support of their beleaguered comrades at the Al Aqsa mosque, as did the Lebanese in the north. Israel fired back….

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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5 Comments

  • Mark Frankel 9th Apr '23 - 7:40am

    If the Palestinians had any political nous they would be forming an alliance with the moderate secular elements in Israel to do down the right-wing but ‘political nous’ and ‘Palestinian leadership’ is a contradiction in terms.

  • @Mark Frankel, many mature democracies could qualify for the phrase ‘nous and leadership are a contradiction in terms’, the USA under Trump, and the UK under Johnson (or Truss) spring to mind.
    It was Great Britain which solemnly promised to leave Mandate Palestine a place where the rights of all its people would be respected, and which failed to do so. Maybe comments from these shores which sound a little less scornful than yours might be in order.
    We should also recognise that the conditions of, in Amnesty’s words, “oppression and domination” by a foreign power are not ideal when you want to form a free and fair system of government, especially when that foreign power’s stated aim is to prevent you from doing so.

  • @Mark Frankel, I’m afraid the Israeli Supreme Court, which the moderate elements in Israel are to be applauded for defending, has severe limitations because its decisions are hemmed in by Israeli legislation and Zionist ideology. Thus, it has never given a decision which states that Israeli civilian settlements on occupied land are ipso facto illegal.

    Baroness Hale, when president of our Supreme Court, was shocked to discover on a visit in 2019 that the West Bank Palestinians “had given up on the Supreme Court because they believed it was no longer able to protect them.” https://balfourproject.org/why-the-rule-of-law-matters-rt-hon-baroness-hale-of-richmond/.

    If there have been any decisions of the Israeli judiciary that compare with, say, the conduct of the Steve Biko inquest in Apartheid era South Africa, please could someone let us know. I would be delighted to hear about them.

    The opposition of such a large section of Israeli society to Netanyahu’s judicial reforms is to be welcomed, but much more will have to happen in Israel in terms of awareness of Palestinian rights before it is realistic to expect there to be meaningful change.

  • Leon Duveen 11th Apr '23 - 8:24pm

    Tom, your first mistake has been to ignore the non-Jewish part of 9.5 million Israelis, they make up around 25% of the population.
    You have also ignored the differences between the orthodox Jewish Israelis, who are very much part of the population, serving in the army, having regular jobs and are fully part of Israeli society (indeed, it is only because they wear a kippa you know they are orthodox) and the ultra-orthodox communities who claim exemption from military service, tend to leave lives that apart from the mainstream, wear a particular style of clothing (loosely based o the attire of Polish noblemen from the middle ages) and many (but not all) are dependent on welfare.
    Aryeh Deri (nor Dei) is a serial offender and in any normal political system would have been hounded out of office years ago but the party he leads, SHAS, represents a significant part of the Israeli Jewish population, those from African & Middle Eastern origin who were discriminated against by those from a European background for much of the first 50 years of the Israel’s existence. This gives him political weight that makes him an important part of the Netanyahu Coalition.

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