To understand the extent of the upcoming Israeli elections on March 2, I think we have to start a little further back. At least since the last decade of the last century.
The 1990s were defined as the period of Israeli “Constitutional reform”, as they were characterized by an unprecedented activism of the Supreme Court. Since the birth of the state until then, the court had limited itself to promulgating fundamental laws (in Israel they replace the constitution) concerning the state's power structure. In the Nineties the tone of the measures began to change. In 1992 the law on human dignity and freedom was promulgated, two years later the law on freedom of occupation (considering the context, it should be underlined that occupation meant jobs). The legislators were moved by the intent to fix what was expressed in the charter of '48, which defined Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state". However, in the conservative and religious circles of Israeli society the turning point was perceived as an unacceptable shift of the balance needle in a liberal direction to the detriment of the Jewishness of the nation. Following the old pendulum rule, what followed was a reaction in the sense of identity. This reaction had several consequences. The most striking was the birth of a new nationalist right wing, whose two most prominent figures were Naftali Bennet (founder of the Habayt Hayeudi, "The Jewish House", party) and Ayelet Shaked.
For twenty years the most skilled in taking advantage of the new scenario has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who worked hard to become the leader of this new identity front. But in the Middle East, it is known, identity and religion are hardly divisible concepts. The space has therefore been created for Israeli religious parties to play their own game, with the aim of influencing the country's politics. When we refer to religious parties in Israel we have to underline the large differences among them and remember that two Jews usually have three opinions. Since the origin of the state (and perhaps even earlier) two fronts had been established: one religious-Zionist, in favour of a conciliation between the religious and national spheres, the other composed of the haredim (literally, the feared), always skeptical of the state of Israel, considered culpable of being the result of secular-modern culture instead of being constituted on a messianic basis. In Western language this second group is called “ultra-Orthodox”. But, as we said, two Jews have three opinions, so even here it was impossible to create a common container. The haredim parties are divided into: Yahadut HaTorah (“Judaism of the Torah”) and Shas. The first, a de facto continuator of a party founded in Poland in 1912, is the result of the union of Agudat Israel (“Union of Israel”) and Deghel Israel (“Flag of Israel”). If the first one represents the Hasidic current (a mystical current today more than anything else devoted to Jewish proselytism), the second is an expression of Lithuanian Judaism, which has had so much weight in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Shas, founded in 1983, is instead an expression of Sephardic and Misrachi Judaism. Its charismatic leader was Rav Ovadia Yosef, Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983, who died in 2013.
In recent years these parties have been increasingly decisive for maintaining the coalition led by Netanyahu, which, with its peculiar unscrupulousness (you don't have to be an expert on Machiavelli to recognize how much unscrupulousness in politics is a virtue), did not hesitate to make alliances with a world that does not belong even to a small extent to his human and political biography. Showing a remarkable ability in political bargaining, these parties managed to orient Israeli politics, obtaining a series of successes. First of all, confirming the rabbinic monopoly on conversions (here the conflict is with reformed Judaism) and on marriages, as on other areas of public life. Then, on the so-called “Law of the Wall”, where Netanyahu bowed to the most extreme demands, repeatedly contradicting himself. No mixed prayer area, where women and men can pray together. Third, with the Military Service Law. This deserves a separate chapter. It is sufficient to say that the haredim communities benefit from special exemptions from the early years of the state. Exemptions which have gradually extended to anyone who pronounces the formula “The study of the Torah is my occupation”.
The rest is recent history: Avigor Liberman, founder of Israel Beitenu (“Israel our home”), an expression of the secular right, did not accept the rejection of ultra-Orthodox parties to revise the military service law, condemning Netanyahu’s government to fall. The center-left coalition reorganized around the figure of Benny Gantz, founder of Kahol-Lavan (“Blue and White”), forcing Bibi into a draw. A majority was not found and – which is unprecedented for Israel – citizens returned to the polls a second time. Another stalemate. The third election will take place on March 2. The country is exhausted. The disaffection towards politics grows, even if the voting percentages remain high, but driven by the extreme wings, which are involved in the game. The polls show an absorption of the smaller parties by the larger ones, but the balance between the two sides does not seem to have changed. Liberman has already said that this time he will guarantee the country a government. Going in which direction? The responsibility on his shoulders is enormous. First, to represent a bridge in an increasingly polarized country, one therefore more vulnerable to the enormous external pressure to which it is subjected. Second, to indicate the way for the future of Israeli identity. In what sense should the dialectic established by the founding fathers between Jewish and democratic values be redefined? Where to set the new limit? Because Israel is facing the same problems as all democracies around the world, where we are witnessing identity reactions following decades of openness and naive dreams of breaking down all limits. Except that in these parts the balance between universal and particular is called Zionism. The question is then legitimate: will Israel still be a Zionist state?
Instead, we could be surprised by the skeptical reaction of the haredi world to the Law of the Nation enacted in 2018, which was due to the belief that it implied further secularization of the state.