Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Satanic pork-eaters vs draft-dodgers -Israel’s election gets down and dirty
There’s plenty of personal invective and general mudslinging going on in the final days of the Israeli election campaign. With 30-plus parties in the race and a good dozen of them in with a reasonable chance of parliamentary seats, everyone is fighting everyone else in a political version of a bar-room free-for-all.
While the main contenders slug it out over who is best placed to keep Israelis safe from attacks by Palestinians or a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, some of the most heated sparring is between smaller parties whose radically different constituencies highlight the diversity of Israeli society. Take Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu for example. Between them, they could get about a quarter of the vote on Tuesday and they’re slugging it out in some colourful language.
Here is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 88-year-old spiritual leader of the Union of Sephardic Torah Observers, or Shas for short, describing Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu, or Our Home is Israel: ”These are people who do not have Torah, people who want civil marriages, shops that sell pork, and the army enlistment of yeshiva students,” Rabbi Yosef was reported as saying by Yedioth Ahronoth daily. “My heart is heavy. Heaven forbid people support them. This is completely forbidden. Whoever does so commits an intolerable sin. Whoever does so supports Satan and the evil inclination.”
The Iraqi-born rabbi pictured in the posters here is apparently anxious that some of his ultra-Orthodox constituency, long opposed to concessions to the Palestinians, especially on sharing Jerusalem, may be drawn into the big surge seen in polls for Lieberman, an immigrant from ex-Soviet Moldova who is eyeing a possible third-placed finish on a diet of anti-Arab rhetoric. Lieberman is clearly drawing in more than just Russian speakers. Haaretz newspaper today declared there was now a “Kulturkampf” – culture wars – between Shas and Lieberman.
While Shas and Lieberman’s party, both of which have served in recent governing coalitions, can probably agree on their hardline approach to the Palestinians and Israel’s 1.5 million own Arab citizens, they are, as Rabbi Yosef makes clear, deeply divided on other emotive issues. A million or so Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union flooded into Israel after the collapse of communism. Many religious Jews question their Jewishness. A few, they point out, actually go to Christian churches. Many, certainly, are strangers to the synagogue and Lieberman’s party has a key platform pledge to end the rabbis’ monopoly over marriage in Israel (those who fail rabbinical tests of Jewishness, including many Russian-speakers, have to travel abroad for nuptials). And, deeply shocking to those raised on Jewish rituals of kosher cuisine, many of these recent immigrants have not lost their taste for pork sausage.
For his part, Lieberman’s battle cry of “no loyalty, no citizenship”, most clearly directed at the Palestinians with Israeli passports, has also been turned against the Orthodox young men who follow Shas. These Yeshiva seminary students can legally avoid otherwise compulsory military service for Jews by saying they are devoting themselves to the study of the Torah biblical texts. While poor Russian-speaking immigrants account for a substantial chunk of not just Israel’s conscript army but the professional military ranks and other security services, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men are exempt from service.
Eyeing his strongest ever showing for the 10-year-old party, Lieberman was quoted as saying this week that he owed three votes of thanks — to the police, for launching a corruption probe against him that made headlines last month and which Lieberman dismissed as a smear campaign, to an Arab member of Israel’s parliament, whom Lieberman branded a “terrorist” in an angry, much televised exchange, and to Rabbi Yosef. “No doubt,” Lieberman said, “The rabbi deserves first prize.”
(PICTURES: A Russian immigrant sells pork sausages in a non-Kosher delicatessen in the central Israeli town of Bet Shemesh. Oct. 31, 2001. REUTERS/Natalie Behring; Young supporters of the Shas ultra-Orthodox party pose with posters of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef during an election rally in Ashdod January 21, 2003. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti; Avigdor Lieberman, leader of hardline right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, walks down the street during a tour of the southern Israeli town of Beer Sheva Feb. 7, 2009. REUTERS/Amir Cohen)