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Too Much Religion in the Knesset?

According to the polls, the religious-Zionists and ultra-Orthodox will hold a disproportionate number of seats in the next Knesset, as compared to their share of the adult population, which is estimated at 21%. There is nothing new about the fact that the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties—Torah Judaism, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and Shas—are on the road to winning about 20 Knesset seats. However, in addition, many religious and some ultra-Orthodox candidates are likely to enter the Knesset as candidates of non-religious parties: five MKs in each of three parties—the Likud, Blue-White, and the New Right—as well as several in the Labour and Zehut parties. The best estimate is that the religious and ultra-Orthodox will account for nearly a third (!) of the next Knesset. Should we be concerned that the Knesset is getting more religious?

It is important to note that despite the inflated religious representation in the next Knesset, mainstream religious Zionists will not have a natural home. The Nationalist ultra-Orthodox (Hardalim) have seized control of the Jewish Home party. Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich reflect the same viewpoints, and, with the inclusion of Otzma Yehudit, the joint list is a bitter pill that many find hard to swallow. Liberal religious Zionists have long since crossed the political Rubicon and see no reason not to vote for any non-religious party on the right, the center, or even (in tiny numbers) on the left. But both the Hardalim and the liberals are relatively small in numbers. The bulk of the religious Zionists has been left without an organized political home.

Although this is a new and rather confusing development, it is perfectly logical and could have been anticipated. The ultra-Orthodox and the Hardalim (like the Arabs) aspire to insularity and so– they must have formal political representation in order to maintain their separate identity. By contrast, the religious Zionist majority wishes to be an integral part of  Israeli society and is  indeed succeeded in  doing so in every domain—the military, the high tech industry, the media, the legal world, academia, industry, and the arts. It is only natural that this process should spill over into politics.

Zeev Elkin, Elazar Stern, Revital Swid, and Moshe Feiglin, all observant Jews who cling to their distinct lifestyles and beliefs, while easily blending into non-religious parties. The fact that the number of observant MKs in non-religious parties is almost equal to their number in the insular religious parties has opened up a window of opportunity:

Most of the “integrationists” oppose the status quo in matters of religion and state and view the damage it causes to the Jewish identity of Israel’s public space, with great despair. Can they work together as a group to influence change in the current arrangements on the religion and state relationship, despite their disagreements on other matters?

The time is probably not yet ripe for initiating a process of modifying the status quo, since the ultra-Orthodox parties’ exclusive focus on the issue will continue to grant them veto power in the political arena. On the other hand, the need for a change is likely to take its place on the national agenda during the term of the new Knesset. A caucus of MKs from several parties, led by religious and traditional Jews, should be formed to serve as a counterweight to the religious conservative political forces on matters of religion and state. It is observant MKs whose commitment to religion and to an Israeli public space which expresses the country’s Jewish identity cannot be called in question, who should be leading the campaign to fight religious coercion.

We can already define the parameters of plausible solutions to issues related to the religion-state conflict. Three-quarters of the new Knesset, including Netanyahu and Gantz, as well as Gabbay, Bennett, Kahlon, and others, would sign on to such agreements if they were not terrified of the radicals at the two ends of the spectrum: the political power of the ultra-Orthodox and Hardalim on the one hand, and the extreme rhetoric of the liberals demanding total separation of religion and state. The “integrationist” religious politicians must take upon themselves the mission of leading Israeli society towards a national consensus in matters of religion and state. If they do so, we will see in retrospect that the anticipated over-representation of the religious in the next Knesset was not a menacing imposition of religion but rather a national blessing.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.