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EDNA'S ESSAYS: AN ISRAELI-AMERICAN TRAVELER ALONG THE AMERICAN WAY; Wide-Ranging Implications of the Growing Power of Religious Orthodoxy in Israel

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EDNA'S ESSAYS: AN ISRAELI-AMERICAN TRAVELER ALONG THE AMERICAN WAY; Wide-ranging Implications of the Growing Power of Religious Orthodoxy in Israel

From the very earliest years of Israel's existence, the political power wielded by religious groups (almost an oxymoron) was felt by many -- both within the country and elsewhere -- to be out of proportion; imbalanced. This power has intensified dramatically through the early to mid-1990s, culminating with the 1996 elections.

Manifestations of the power of Jewish orthodoxy in Israel spill over from the public sector into the personal lives of all Israelis whether they are religiously observant or secular. Without knowledge of these manifestations, no understanding is possible of the "shape of things to come."

For one thing, the world outside Israel has failed to understand the profound political consequences of the 1996 change in the electoral system. Two ballots were cast: one for direct election of the prime minister (much the way Americans elect the president); and the other for a party list of candidates for the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Under this system, in use for the first time, there was a heavy increase in religious representatives, which in turn made it inevitable that the prime minister elected would be tethered to the collars of the rabbis.

Elimination of the scandalous special budgetary allocations meant largely for Israel's religious institutions had been accomplished in prior years in response to loud protests from Israel's secular majority. But in the new electoral situation created in 1996, the religious parties' lobbyists were able to press for access to all of the state's budgets, except for the defense budget. Thus they succeeded in getting their hands on vast amounts, with gusto.

As concerned observers watch the conduct of the struggle for funds, it is clear that the adversaries are unequal. The religious parties are investing enormous creativity and hard work to make their efforts effective, outmaneuvering the opposing secular parties (Meretz is the worst offender) who are idle, verbose and ineffectual.

What is at stake in this struggle for money is nothing less than the substance and essence of Israeli society in the next generation. To be blunt about it, this is a struggle over the children.

The Orthodox understand this fully, while the secular politicians seem to be preoccupied elsewhere, frittering away their energies. But the bottom line is that the source of funds, whether for religious or secular institutions, is the state. Religious educational institutions are tapping into this pocket and offering far more extended school hours and facilities than the national educational system can afford.

The main losers are the children in "development" towns and in impoverished neighborhoods who receive a dull, dreary education, bound to transform them into the unemployed of the future. These kids could, of course, go to the religious schools which provide better services than the state schools, but in the religious schools they would be educated to a parasitical and not a productive, mainstream life.

It is in the arena of military service that this parasitical life is at least partially reflected. Ever since compulsory military service was implemented in Israel, young people with Orthodox religious affiliation were either completely excused from serving (this applied especially to young women), or they petitioned for postponement. The latter avenue was available especially for students in religious colleges (Yeshivot), where studies were exclusively in religious texts.

Here is a democratic society in which the burden of military service is inequitably borne. In this sense, at least, young Orthodox men act as though they are not part of Israeli society. Yet few voices have been heard in support of the principle of equity essential to mitigate the frustration of those who spend important years performing their military duty. …