Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”
This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.
Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.
Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.
It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.