Israel’s selection of new Chief Rabbis takes place next week. Rarely has this election, every ten years, received anywhere near the attention that this year’s election has garnered. Hostility between the Rabbinate and the general secular population is more intense than ever and the internal dissention between religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community has never been higher. Without unpacking all the issues that are involved in the fight, there is one very curious phenomenon to which political analysts ought to be more concerned.
As politics and religion are intermingled in Israel–there being no separation of church and state—politicians in Israel appeal to religious voters as a bloc of voters (especially the haredim who tend to vote almost as a monolith.) Over 65 years the Chief Rabbinate which began largely as a religious Zionist institution has moved significantly to the right, so much so that it is largely perceived by the religious Zionists already to be generally an arm of the haredim. Thus the election scheduled for July 24 becomes interesting.
For the first time in a long time a serious religious Zionist candidate, Rabbi David Stav, is running hard for the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. (More about the Sephardic candidates follows.) There are 150 public representatives who will select the two chief rabbis, all of whom are self-nominated. Among the four Ashkenazi candidates, all the Zionist parties have urged their members in the conclave to support Rabbi Stav—except for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Bibi’s Party is reportedly supporting one of the haredi candidates, Rabbi David Lau, a close confidant of the Prime Minister and the son of a former Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau.
With important votes forthcoming on haredi military or national service—issues which were seen as fundamental to Netanyahu’s coalition partners Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitanu—it is clearly a blatant ploy to placate the haredim to try to keep their support in the future, especially when security issues emerge.
Meanwhile in the contest for Sephardic Chief Rabbi the gamesmanship truly has reached historic proportion. There are six candidates. One is the son, Rabbi Yosef Yosef, of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He only became a candidate when his father’s eldest son, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, had to withdraw from the race because he is under a police investigation. Another candidate, is Be’er Sheva Chief Rabbi Yehuda Deri, the brother of the ultra Orthodox Shas Party Chair, Aryeh Deri. There is also the Chief Rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, who has been fighting allegations for years charging him with repeatedly making racist (anti-Arab) remarks.
This all would be irrelevant to the largely secular society except for the fact that the political leverage of the haredi community has serious economic consequences on the rest of Israeli society. It seemed after the last election that matters like military/national service, declining deferments, and tax responsibilities in the haredi community would be addressed. There was a sense that social benefits for the haredim would not be automatic and that the new Government was prepared to confront this community. Now, unless the haredim totally split their votes, this election may only underscore the fact that nothing has changed.