Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg

Israel’s newly expanded governing coalition may be more cautious about bombing Iran, and it may be marginally more open to serious negotiations with the Palestinians. But neither issue was the immediate reason the centrist Kadima party joined the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 8.

The fundamental issue was the relationship between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox populations.

A looming crisis in Israeli politics was created when the country’s highest court ruled in February that ultra-Orthodox men studying in Israeli yeshivas, academies of higher Talmudic learning, must be drafted into the Israeli army as of Aug. 1. Since Israel was founded in 1948, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students have been exempt from compulsory military service, as have religious Jewish women and Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship. Those exempt can choose nonmilitary national service, but few do.

The exemption was the product of a deal between David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s legendary first prime minister, and the ultra-Orthodox minority, which was then tiny. At the time, many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad rejected the very idea of a Jewish state, believing that only God had the authority to re-create Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. To hasten the messianic age was a sin, and secular Zionism was its incarnation.

Exemptions for Support

What was more, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe lived in constant fear of military conscription into the Russian army. It seemed monstrous for a Jewish state to draft yeshiva students. In the end, Ben-Gurion traded the military exemption for the political support of ultra-Orthodox leaders. Such backing has proved valuable to successive prime ministers, as none of Israel’s major parties have ever won parliamentary majorities outright and so have often relied on religious parties to form governing coalitions.

Since Israel’s founding, the ultra-Orthodox community has grown enormously, fueled in large part by state subsidies. From several hundred yeshiva students claiming the draft exemption, the ranks have risen to some 60,000. The number of people studying the Talmud full time is now far greater than at any point in Jewish history. To the ultra-Orthodox, this is not just a virtue in itself. Many believe the students are providing a spiritual defense for the state, earning divine merit that ensures Israel’s continued existence.

At the same time, almost all the ultra-Orthodox have come to terms with the existence of Israel. Their leaders engage in shaping the way the government does its business. They have successfully lobbied for subsidies for their community and for a large share of control over the rabbinate that regulates marriage and divorce for Jewish Israelis. They keep the Israeli airline, El Al, as well as the national bus companies from operating on the Sabbath, and they block Saturday traffic in their neighborhoods.

Yet Israel is mostly secular. Only 27 percent of Israelis say they keep the Sabbath in the traditional manner. And secular Israelis have become increasingly angry about what they consider ultra-Orthodox freeloading on the public goods of defense and social welfare. Secular Israelis consider it outrageous that small religious parties have been able to extract concessions from parties, left and right, as they try to build governing coalitions.

Breaking the Cycle

The latest round of coalition building may have broken that cycle. Netanyahu feared that passing a new law to address the high court’s ruling might bring down his government, and had called early elections to avoid the conflict. He canceled that plan two days later, however, after expanding his government. With 94 of the 120 seats in parliament, the new government can address the ruling without fear of collapsing because of defections. The centrist and secular Kadima, led by former military chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, is likely to see eye to eye with Netanyahu’s Likud party on this issue.

A new social contract will probably emerge between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox citizens. It’s improbable that all yeshiva students will be drafted. This might lead to civil disobedience by students horrified at the prospect of being forced into secular society. The military certainly doesn’t want the task of bringing 60,000 Talmudic scholars into the modern world and putting them through basic training. But one can expect that yeshiva students will have to perform various kinds of nonmilitary national service. Alternatives might include teaching, providing basic health care and administrative work.

The result will be a far-reaching transformation of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Torah study has weathered infinitely greater challenges, most recently the Holocaust, and it will survive. But the ranks of those who devote their entire lives exclusively to the practice will shrink to those who can do it particularly well.

Resolving the draft exclusion won’t eliminate the rift between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Notably, there remains the issue of religious control of marriage and divorce. Indeed, ultra-Orthodox political demands may become more credible once the ultra-Orthodox community is carrying some of the burden of sustaining the state. Greater integration of the ultra-Orthodox into mainstream society may make Israel less secular, not more. Israelis will still have to decide how religiously Jewish the Jewish state ought to be. That question matters as much to Israel’s future as the problems of war and peace.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.