Status Quo Expectations

June 2, 2013
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The recent elections in Israel and the ensuing coalition negotiations have instated a government that, for the first time since 1994, does not include a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party. This much-trumpeted development has led pundits to predict dramatic changes to the so-called “status quo” — the historic agreement between the Orthodox and secular sectors on matters of religion and state.

Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews understand the status quo to refer to an implicit balance established in the early days of the state to manage the jurisdiction of religion over daily life. In Israel’s perceived “binary” system, where political parties are either “secular” or “Orthodox,” whenever one side considers its rights to have been violated, it invokes the status quo in appealing for redress.

In fact, the historic status quo agreement was a document crafted in 1947, prior to the arrival of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), whose mandate was to find a solution to the Jewish–Arab conflict in Palestine. Signed by David Ben-Gurion and representatives of the Jewish Agency executive, and presented to the worldwide Haredi organization Agudath Israel, it was quite limited in scope. Haredi demands were accepted in order to present a united Jewish front demanding the establishment of a Jewish state. For the Zionist leaders, the status quo agreement was crucial, since without it, UNSCOP might have deemed statehood untenable.

That historic status quo agreement covers four issues: Sabbath observance, kashrut observance, prevention of intermarriage, and education. It states that the Sabbath will be Israel’s “legal day of rest”; that “all necessary means will be employed to ensure that every state kitchen intended for Jews will be kosher”; that the Jewish Agency “will do all that can be done to satisfy the needs of the observant … to prevent a rift within the Jewish people”; and that every educational stream will have “full autonomy … to impart education according to its conscience.”

Note that the document does not address various contentious issues commonly associated with the status quo today: exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and religiously observant girls, the interdiction of pig farming, El Al flights on the Sabbath, archeological excavations, autopsies, and abortion. The religious parties raised these issues only after the original status quo agreement, and they reflect the Orthodox parties’ success at extending their influence beyond the initial parameters of the status quo agreement.

Despite the optimism of many non-Orthodox groups in Israel and beyond, the recent coalition agreement does not tackle the issues covered in the historic status quo agreement, or, for that matter, most of the issues often associated with it. Rather, it focuses on “redistributing the national burden,” a code for criticizing the limited participation of Haredim in the military and the workforce. It mandates increased Haredi conscription, and stipulates that renewed efforts will be made to introduce a core curriculum in state-funded Haredi schools. Such legislation, and the concomitant budgetary allocations, will, of course, be challenged; bitter, even violent opposition to the proposals is likely. But it is highly unlikely that there will be changes to the original status quo agreement, or even movement on any of the aforementioned ancillary issues. With respect to these issues, the status quo will probably prevail. The presence in the coalition of the National Religious Party, now called “The Jewish Home,” (in Hebrew, Habayit Hayehudi), and the Likud’s hopes of future political alliances with the Haredim, make further and more radical change improbable.

The struggle over the place of religion in the public domain will thus continue. Demands for civil marriage, dissatisfaction with rabbinical-court control over divorce, attempts by Haredi extremists to encourage gender separation on public buses, and the ongoing issue of women’s prayer at the Western Wall, will continue to dominate public debate over matters of religion and state. It is unclear what role the new government will play. Conceivably, once legislation concerning the increased conscription of Haredim has been enacted, and the funding issues resolved, the Haredi parties, “unsullied” by responsibility for these decisions, may seek to return to the government benches. Should this happen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be delighted, as it would offer a greater chance to sustain the coalition by playing its factions against each other; it would be a challenge, though, for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Whether the party would remain in the coalition and work with its Haredi colleagues to forge a new social contract on religious–secular equilibrium, or bolt the government in protest, leaving the field open for the Haredi parties to push further legislation to erode the status quo and tilt the precarious balance in their favor, is an open question.

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Dr. David Mendelsson is director of the Year-in-Israel Program of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, and he lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School.

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