Israel’s Sports Ministry acquired authority regarding nomination of rabbis
Heating up under the unyielding summer sun, Israel is facing a new wave of inner Jewish wars, this time in clear preparation for the October 2013 elections. Haredim and Zionists compete against each other in a chess game with no rules, where Reform and Conservative Jews are colorless pawns serving both opponents.
The lesser battle in this chess game is between Haredi factions; mainly between Sephardic and Ashkenazi. One may wonder at this; after all, aren’t their respective political parties defined on ethnic and cultural lines? The point is that the borderline between the two is not clear; for example, many people were born to mixed marriages. Leaders of both camps compete for undecided Haredi votes; more often than not by throwing dirt on the other camp. Hatred between rabbis is infamous. Many years ago, Coca Cola wanted to enter the Israeli market. It needed to be awarded a kosher certificate by the relevant religious authorities. However, the Coca Cola formula is a closely guarded secret; disclosing it to the rabbinate was inconceivable. The solution found was to divide the formula in two and give each half to a different rabbi, a modern variant on Solomon’s justice. The two rabbis involved hadn’t spoken between them in decades. Coca Cola trusted they wouldn’t join the formula’s halves. Each rabbi approved his half as kosher, and the drink was approved for the local market. This humorous accord probably wouldn’t be possible now; Haredi leaders find time to attack each other while resting from their attacks on the Zionists.
At the age of 102, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv is Posek HaDor, the “Decider of the Generation,” the leader of the “Litaim” (as the Lithuanian Haredim stream is known in Hebrew), the contemporary Ashkenazi leading authority on Halakha, the Jewish law, a body of religious legislation parallel to Muslim Shar’ia. Ovadia Yosef is the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, former chief military rabbi, spiritual leader of the Shas political party, and the leading Halakhic Sephardic authority. Their last public brawl took place last year. In January 2011, Eliashiv published a letter criticizing Yosef for approving conversions performed by the Israel Defense Forces, calling all those converted by the state gentiles. “Everyone knows that there gentiles do not intend to take upon themselves a thing from the essence of the religion, neither the Sabbath, kashrut nor family purity laws. And everyone knows… That the gentiles do not intend to embrace Judaism,” Eliashiv wrote. Soon, these two mastodons of the Haredi world will need to decide if they cooperate on the issues of the Tal Law, and Reform and Conservative rabbis.
The King’s Gambit
The Haredi inner clashes are just a warming up. The real battlefield is along the religious-secular frontline. Considering Netanyahu’s expanded government, this looks odd. On May 8, 2012, Netanyahu signed an agreement with Kadima—Ariel Sharon’s party—and created a wide government that will allow him to survive politically even in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, or the reelection of Barack Obama as president of the USA (see Shaul Mofaz Walks to Canossa). This is one of the largest governments in Israel’s history, and the first National Unity Government (an informal term referring to a government comprising the main parties) to be formed without the Labor party. The numbers are astounding. Following the 2009 elections, a coalitional government was formed in March 2009 with the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, the Labor Party, The Jewish Home, and from April 1, also United Torah Judaism; this was a wide coalition with 74 Members of the Knesset (out of 120) being part of it. In January 2011, following Labor’s decision to leave the government, its leader Ehud Barak formed a breakaway party, Independence, and stayed in the government, which shrank down to 66 MK’s. This was a government barely capable of survival. All this time, Kadima—the largest party in the Knesset—led the opposition. Following recent internal elections in Kadima, its leader—Tzipi Livni—was replaced by Shaul Mofaz (see Upheaval in Ariel Sharon’s Party). After early elections were publicly considered, Netanyahu and Mofaz struck a deal that brought Kadima into the coalition, with Shaul Mofaz becoming Deputy Prime Minister. This created a National Unity Government of 94 MK’s; meaning that over 78% of the Knesset supports the new government. Even if Netanyahu’s party were to leave the coalition, hisgovernment will still have a majority; such a government is almost unbeatable. In this context, the Haredi parties seem to be one of the losers of the new deal; yet reality is different.
The next elections in Israel must take place before October 23, 2013. Regardless who wins, the participation of the Haredi parties in the next coalition government is assured. Thus, Netanyahu cannot delete them from his list of problems and is attacking them in two flanks, hoping to diminish their parliamentary strength. On February 21, 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court annulled the “Tal Law.” This law kept most Haredi Jews out of the IDF (see Israeli Supreme Court Cancels Discriminatory Law). Now, a new arrangement must be found in order to keep Haredim out of the army; unless so, they will revolt. With his wide new government, Netanyahu has a substantial advantage in the negotiations on this topic; yet, all analysts agree that there is no choice for the state but to compromise with the Haredim and keep them out of the IDF.
Attempting to perform Vidui Hariga (Corroboration of Killing, a popular IDF practice), Netanyahu attacked the Haredim also from a different flank. On May 29, 2012, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced to the Supreme Court Justice that the State of Israel will recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis. They will be defined as “rabbis of a non-Orthodox community,” and will receive salaries from the Culture and Sports Ministry and not from the Religious Services Ministry, as Haredi rabbis do. It is unclear if they will be requested to prove their sportive skills. They will be limited to regional councils and farming communities and forbidden in large cities. In other words, the American Jewish settlers in the West Bank will be able to continue their Reform and Conservative practices, while the rest of the Israeli population will not be aware of any changes. Yet, this is an attack of the state on the authority of Haredi rabbis.
The Latvian Gambit
The King’s Gambit described above could have been a smart one, but Netanyahu hates waking up early. Rabbi Hoffman provided to Haaretz one of the first Haredi reactions to this decision: “Reform and Conservatives have no place in the Holy Land. This is an insult and desecration of our faith. Saying they are under the Sports Ministry is even more ludicrous.” More formal reactions will take time; however, the Haredim defeated Netanyahu several months ago.
On, December 12, 2011, Netanyahu’s coalition withdrew from the Knesset what is known as the Grunis Law, named after Justice Asher Dan Grunis. This was a personal law legislated specifically to allow Mr. Grunis to become President of Israel’s Supreme Court (see Netanyahu buys Justice). Back then, Netanyahu was under pressure. In February 2012, Dorit Beinisch, the former president, was to retire, since Justices in Israel retire once they reach the age of 70. Among all candidates—the remaining 13—Asher Dan Grunis was the one favored by Netanyahu to become the next president. Grunis is a descendant of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, founder of the Gur Hassidic movement, which in Israel is closely related to the Haredim and in good terms with them. As such, he is the closest existing candidate to the right-wing, Pharisaic ideology favored by Netanyahu’s coalition. Unluckily, in July 2007, another right-wing government had sabotaged his nomination, when it promoted an amendment to the Israel Courts Law stating that a Justice with less than three years of service left would not be eligible as president. On the day the former president left office, Mr. Grunis was 41 days short of this limitation. Hence, he could not be elected. Netanyahu tried to rush the Grunis Law through the Knesset, so that his favored Justice would become president. The opposition placed 5000 objections in the way of the new law, and it was withdrawn. Following a tortuous legislative path, it was eventually approved, and on February 27, 2012, Justice Grunis was sworn in as President of Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice. Netanyahu’s thought he had acquired a sidekick; in fact, he was watching the first move of the Latvian Gambit.
The importance of this appointment became clear when under the leadership of the former president—Justice Dorit Beinisch—the court nullified the Tal Law. This law allows ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim and Hasidim) to choose whether or not to serve in the IDF, just days before Justice Grunis took over the role of president. For other Israelis service in the IDF is mandatory; in contrast, most Haredim decline to serve under the provisions made by the Tal Law. Expectedly, Asher Grunis opposed the nullification of the law. He declared that he doesn’t believe the court should intervene in this case. Once he became president of the court, he acquired more power to influence whatever decision would be taken in the following months. If no new law is legislated, the Haredim will have to serve in the army.
As said many times in this website; Israel is not a normal country. With no Constitution, set borders, or even well-identified citizens, many things are decided by the Supreme Court, which has the power to nullify laws. Netanyahu can play legislative-chess with the Haredim in the parliament as much as he wishes, but once the latter will get tired of this rather incompetent player, they will turn to the Supreme Court President—Asher Grunis—and demand nullification of any unfavorable law replacing the Tal Law, or of the new arrangement with the Reform and Conservative rabbis. The latter will probably be easily dismissed since the Sports Ministry is not relevant to the issue. Mr. Grunis already proved loyal to the Haredim on the issue of the Tal Law. Mr. Netanyahu did you ever consider using the Bishop’s Opening in your chess games? They say it is a simpler move for novices.