On a cool winter evening in 2012, a senior delegation of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians — members of Israel’s Ashkenazi religious party, United Torah Judaism, and the Sephardic religious party, Shas — convened in Bnei Brak, a predominantly Haredi city near Tel Aviv. The host was a 98-year-old rabbi, Aharon Shtainman, spiritual leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi stream. The objective was to form an Ashkenazi-Sephardic bloc to prevent the conscription of yeshiva students into the Israel Defense Forces following the expiration of the Tal Law, which currently exempts them from these obligations.
Exiting the meeting, some of the delegates announced that they were willing to go as far as to sacrifice their lives to ensure that Haredi students may continue to study the Torah instead of joining the military.
This extreme rhetoric might sound like an expression of strength and confidence. But it’s not. These ultra-Orthodox parties are, rather, at a point of desperation, concerned about the future of their political power within Israel. Pressure, rather than theology, is the element that has united these vastly different parties in recent months — the result of last January’s general elections for the Knesset, growing public pressure to integrate Haredi men into the military and the labor force, and trends within the Haredi world itself.
The election sent a clear message to Benjamin Netanyahu, insisting that he form a coalition to address the middle class demand for social and economic justice and equality. It’s a task that would become easier without Haredi parties occupying key positions in the coalition and working to secure Haredi financial interests.
With 19 Knesset seats claimed by Yair Lapid’s centrist party, that part of the Israeli population who want the social and economic burdens more equally shared now have a significant counterbalance to the two Haredi parties who won a combined 18 seats. There is a chance that the Haredim will find themselves out of the next coalition.
For the Haredi parties, spending the next few years in the opposition is tantamount to political catastrophe. Limited influence on the state’s budget will impede their ability to secure financial resources for their yeshivas or to influence the negotiations regarding the future of yeshiva students. These scenarios are a direct strike at the heart of the Haredi world and its leadership. Both UTJ and Shas will use all the political tools at their disposal to avoid reaching this ebb.