With the new government in place, Israelis are beginning to address the
complicated question of what they want their country to look like.
“So, who are you voting for?” we asked each other, not really expecting an answer. Here in Israel, where politics is a life or death matter, even family members keep a close guard on their political affiliation. My husband hasn’t revealed his voting choice to me since 1981 when I infamously told a reporter that if my husband voted for Shimon Peres, I would never sleep with him again. That following Friday night when he sang the traditional Woman of Valor song to me, he stopped halfway through the line that goes, “Her mouth is opened in wisdom.”
This past election, however, was somehow different. The vicious left versus right battles were irrelevant to most of us. “Peace Now” was an old, tired slogan after the upheavals and shock therapy of Oslo; the furious debates on “land for peace” were equally irrelevant following years of rocket fire from Gaza since the disengagement.
Although I wasn’t thrilled with Bibi Netanyahu for many reasons—especially his inability to challenge the haredim over their privileges—it was important to me that his intelligent, defense-minded, economically savvy leadership continue at the country’s helm. It was a conservative voting choice shared by many Israelis, which gave the Likud its 32 seats, making it the majority party but hardly handing it the whopping victory it expected.
The reason was clear and perhaps startling: Even with an Iranian atom bomb hovering over our heads, for most Israelis the true life or death issue in this past election was not security, but an internal debate on what has come to be known as “sharing the burden.” It is a subject that arouses as much passion among Jewish Israelis as the peace debate ever did, or more.
The “burden” is mostly the defense burden, the life or death matter of the military draft that separates our 18-year-olds from their families and their teenage lives. The draft deferment granted by David Ben-Gurion to yeshiva students at the founding of the state, when there were only a few hundred of them, now bitterly divides the country as thousands of yeshiva students yearly avoid the draft. In its own way, it arouses a rancor, even hatred, reminiscent of the terrible divide among Israelis just before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
More and more secular and modern Orthodox families are boiling over with resentment at the refusal of the haredi sector to willingly send their children to defend their country. Adding fuel to the fire is the rhetoric of the haredi world, which demands exemptions because they alone, in their words, are “upholding the burden of Torah learning, by whose merit Israel is entitled to protection by God.” This, according to them, equals, if not outweighs, the contribution of the boys and girls in IDF uniforms to national defense. They describe their contribution with such rage-inciting slogans as “killing ourselves on the altar of Torah.”
And the economic burden of supporting that portion of the haredi population that does not work, and thus not only contributes no taxes but depends on government stipends to support their families and their studies, is the key to understanding why my husband, who davens every morning, who served in the army, who took two sons and a grandson to the Bakum, the army induction office for new recruits, and who at 63 is still getting up every day at 5 a.m. to go to work, not only voted for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party but bragged to me about it.
My son, the ex-yeshiva student, army veteran and college student, was of a different mind, caught up in the other great surprise of the election results: the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party headed by charismatic knitted-kippah-wearing army officer and high-tech genius Naftali Bennett. Bennett has captured the imagination of my son’s generation as guru and role model. Among my son and his friends, there is even an ongoing contest in Bennett superlatives, along the lines of “Superman goes to sleep in Naftali Bennett pajamas.”
For perhaps the first time, with my son too, the security issue didn’t totally dominate his priorities. What was most important to him was a social agenda, the creation literally of a “home base” where my son’s generation of religious young men who are also college-educated army veterans could be heard. They too want everyone to serve in the army, but they honor and appreciate what the yeshiva world does as well, and they want Israel to remain a Jewish country in its values, education and outlook. Not only was my son open about his choice this time, but he led a spirited campaign to get the family’s votes for Bennett.
The urgency of the once huge, bloody wound over how to deal with our enemies has narrowed, almost healed, to the point that what we in Israel voted for in the last election was not only how to save our lives but how to better them. We took a breather, turning inward, dealing with the great questions of what we believe in, what we want our lives and our country to look like.
Post-election coalition negotiations proved startling, with left-wing, anti-haredi Lapid and right-wing Bennett “embrac[ing] publicly more than Barack and Michelle [Obama] did during the campaign in America,” as Haaretz wrote. At press time Netanyahu faced a package deal that will force him to draft yeshiva students and cut off their subsidies to allow him to form a government and hold it together. Bibi’s continued opposition to these two forces empowered by the will of the electorate would be political suicide over the long term.
Only time will tell if the great expectations of Israel’s voters, and those of my family, will dissolve into heartbreaking disillusion or become dreams come true.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.