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News analysis: Return of Israel's religious parties to gov't may spell social, economic trouble

by Anat Shalev

JERUSALEM, May 31 (Xinhua) -- After two years in the opposition, Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and the United Torah Judaism, managed to secure their spots in the new Israeli government formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.

The comeback of the religious parties have aroused fears of a rollback of the reforms which were heralded by the previous government to integrate Orthodox Jews into the workforce and the military, as part of a broader social-economic reform aiming to keep sustainable economic growth and restore social justice. Observers have warned that a reverse of the reforms may add to social and economic woes Israel is facing.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel's just over eight million population. Official statistics show that the community is expanding rapidly, with an annual growth rate of more than five percent, much higher than the 1.8 percent of the general population.

Some 52,000 Haredi men declared that their sole occupation is studying Torah (Bible) and therefore they were exempted from serving in the military. It is estimated that with tens of thousands of Orthodox seminary students not working, the Israeli market loses about 12 billion shekels (3.1 billion U.S. dollars) annually.

The privilege ultra-Orthodox Jews enjoy purportedly originates from an understanding reached between secular and religious forces when Israel was founded in 1948, under which a status quo should be kept regarding communal arrangements on religious matters.

The status quo understanding gives rabbinical courts the authority over family laws relating to marriage, birth and burial. It also allows ultra-Orthodox men to study in seminaries instead of joining the army and taking part in the workforce.

In the coalition agreements signed between Netanyahu and the Orthodox parties is a reversal of some policies adopted by the previous government to promote Orthodox Jews' integration into the society. Under the agreements, billions of shekels in budgetary fund will be transferred to Orthodox institutions and the criminal sanctions clause against Orthodox Jews is "canceled" from the draft law.

They also strike down clauses that conditioned receiving financial assistance with integrating into the workforce, and annulled regulations banning the provision of state funds for Haredi schools which do not teach core curriculums of math and English.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have been in the line of fire in the secular public's eyes for enjoying huge funds in exchange for their political support, as well as a monopoly on matters of state and religion, and personal matters that pertain to every citizen in Israel including marriage, divorce and death.

Following the massive social justice and socioeconomic protests in Israel in 2011, there were calls for "equalizing the burden" in the Israeli society and conscripting Orthodox men. Pushed by the center Yesh Atid party, the previous government adopted a series of reform measures to promote Orthodox Jews' participation in the workforce and the military service.

According to a poll conducted by the Hiddush Non-Government Organization, which advocates religious pluralism, 62 percent of Israeli voters hold that they do not want to see ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, while another 74 percent charged against increments in public funding for Orthodox seminaries.

"The public understand that the coalition agreements are deliberate sabotage to the notion of equalizing the burden," Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush, told Xinhua. "They are deliberate sabotage to the effort to get Orthodox men to work and for the very important task of teaching core curriculum in the Haredi education."

Professor Yedidia Stern, who specializes in matters of state and religion at the Bar Ilan University, fears the effects of the coalition agreements on the Israeli society.

"There are two aspects to this, economic and social. On the social front, there will be obviously greater tensions in the Israeli society between Orthodox and secular Jews. On all levels, we are definitely expected to see a regression in the integration of ultra-Orthodox within society, reversing the important trend we've been witnessing in the past couple of years," he said.

"The combination of accelerated (natural) growth in the Haredi community and the refusal to take part in the Israeli society and economy is a recipe for disaster which may bring about economic collapse, threatening the survival of the Zionist enterprise," he warned.

Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information in the Hiddush NGO, goes further than Stern, calling the agreements between the Likud party and the Orthodox parties "the worst coalition agreements regarding the effects on the Israeli society."

"There was a positive trend of pushing Orthodox into the workforce, and there have been figures pointing to growing integration. But now I'm afraid this will be reversed and we are expecting a major crisis in the Israeli economy down the line," Ilan told Xinhua.

"It's absurd. Israel had spent hundreds of millions of shekels on programs to get Orthodox people to work in recent years, understanding the importance of this issue. Now, Israel is going to spend money and encouraging an opposite trend," Ilan said.

"Furthermore, now that Orthodox schools can bail on teaching English and Math we're blocking access for tens of thousands of kids to integrate into modern society in the future," he added.

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