Religious Parties

Israel Table of Contents

Israel's religious parties were originally organized not to seize the reins of power, but rather to engage in what American scholar Norman L. Zucker has called "theopolitics"--to gain theological ends by means of political activity. From the Orthodox viewpoint, Israel remained an imperfect state as long as secular rather than religiously observant Jews constituted a majority. As of 1988, policy issues concerning religious parties included the question of "Who is a Jew," maintaining Orthodox rabbinical control over marriage and divorce, increasing sabbath observance, observing kosher dietary regulations, maintaining and expanding the state religious education systems, ensuring the exemption of religious women and ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and such social issues as abortion.

Despite the minority position of adherents of Orthodox Judaism, several factors have enabled this religious bloc to maintain a central role in the state. Such factors have included the links between Judaism and Israeli nationalism; the political and organizational power of the religious parties--particularly the NRP and later Agudat Israel and Shas--in assuming a pivotal role in the formation and maintenance of coalition governments; and the inability of the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious movements, although powerful in the Jewish Diaspora, to penetrate effectively Israel's religious administrative apparatus. This apparatus consisted particularly of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Chief Rabbinate, the Chief Rabbinical Council, and local religious councils. The Reform and Conservative movements played a minor role in Zionism during the prestate period and thus allowed the Orthodox to dominate religious activities in the new state. Among the Orthodox there were varying forms of religious observance in accordance with halakah. The main division was between the ultra-Orthodox, who rejected Zionism and were associated with Agudat Israel and Shas, and the modern Orthodox, who attempted to reconcile Zionism and religious orthodoxy and were associated with the NRP.

Taken together, Israel's religious parties have over the years generally commanded from fifteen to eighteen seats in the Knesset, or about 12 to 15 percent of the Knesset. On occasion they have formed religious coalitions of their own, such as the United Religious Front and the Torah Religious Front. The voter strength of the religious parties, particularly the NRP, made them ideal coalition partners for the two major blocs. Because neither bloc has ever been able to achieve a majority in the Knesset, the potentially pivotal position of the religious parties has given them disproportionate political power. One of the greatest shocks of the 1988 Knesset elections was the surprising increase in strength of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, which went from thirteen to eighteen Knesset seats.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress