As protesters against the high cost of living in Israel flood the country’s streets, one demographic is noticeably absent: the religious sector.
While, to be sure, individual yarmulkes can be seen here and there — including on the evening of July 30, when up to 150,000 people demonstrated in multiple locations — the general disinterest of the Orthodox Jewish community has attracted widespread comment.
Just two religious towns, Elad and Tekoa, have seen residents protest locally, and no leading rabbi has called upon their followers to join the fray.
They are mistaken to treat this protest movement with such apathy. The religious community is demonstrating a worrisome emotional detachment from mainstream Israelis. Standing on the sidelines of Israel’s summer revolution will carry heavy political costs.
The wave of protests began in June, when a consumer boycott prompted by the soaring price of cottage cheese — an Israeli staple — forced supermarkets to lower prices and the government to allow more dairy imports. Buoyed by the success, social activists began camping out in tents in Israel’s main cities, demanding that the government do more to provide affordable housing and “social justice.” House prices have spiraled upward by 63% between May 2007 and June 2011, putting apartments that are in desirable areas beyond the reach of many middle-class Israelis.
In theory, this should be an emotive subject for the religious sector, which is subject to much of the same financial pressures as the rest of the population. The national religious, or Modern Orthodox, group has large communities in most of the urban centers where demonstrations have taken place, with the notable exception of Tel Aviv. Until recently, cheaper housing was readily available for this demographic in the settlements, but the 10-month freeze on construction there last year put a temporary squeeze on supply, forcing some to stay within the Green Line (contributing, some claim, to the rise in prices in “Israel proper”). For the ultra-Orthodox, with their limited incomes and large natural growth, housing has always been a major issue. Although the religious parties have ensured that several cheaper Haredi towns have been built over the past decade, many Haredi parents have to finance or partially finance apartments for several children.
So why have they shied away from the current protests? Haredi leaders in Jerusalem and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petah Tikvah hesder yeshivah, which combines Talmudic studies with IDF service, have claimed that the religious public demonstrates for “values” — that is, issues such as the public observance of the Sabbath — or for issues of wider public policy, but not for their own personal gain. This is disingenuous, as many of the causes championed by these groups are overtly political and are directly related to their personal and group interests.
It is more plausible that the religious public, which is largely right-wing, is suspicious of the political motivations of the protest organizers. Many of the organizers have been active in liberal organizations and in the New Israel Fund, which is hated by many on the right and lent resources and manpower to the demonstrations early on. Moreover, many on the right point out that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has acted to reform the housing market through a bill that is meant to speed up the process of approving building projects, one that is currently making its way through the Knesset — and they do not want to see the government toppled over this issue.
Not unrelated, there is a deep cultural chasm between the religious public and the original demonstrators, who have come across in the media as Tel Aviv yuppies — a well-known stereotype particularly detested by the religious, who consider them bourgeois, aggressively secular and self-centered. The two groups are simply uncomfortable together, a sad testament to the depth of the divisions plaguing Israeli society.
The problem for the religious sector is that this summer’s outpouring of anger is going to redefine Israeli political discourse, giving social issues — which have traditionally been neglected in favor of security issues — more prominence than they have had in years. If those of the religious sector do not participate in the demonstrations, they will have no part in shaping the new dialogue. Also, the religious parties are going to miss a vital chance to become relevant again to the general public, which has little interest in their current main agenda: retaining Greater Israel.
By default, they are leaving the stage open for the left to claim the cost-of-living issue as its own, thus saving itself from almost certain annihilation in the next election. In the current Knesset, Labor and Meretz won just 16 seats out of 120; since voters rejected their policies in 2001 regarding the Palestinians, they have struggled to find an alternative political platform. The housing issue affects Israelis of all political and religious stripes. But unless the religious camp makes its way down to the tent cities soon, it will find that a resurgent left has ended the decade-long, right-wing domination of Israeli politics.
Miriam Shaviv is a columnist for the United Kingdom’s Jewish Chronicle.