Bibi finds his Gevalt! moment

The emergency campaigns have come early this year, writes Anshel Pfeffer


Supreme Court President Esther Hayut arrives to a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on a petition filed by two young Israeli women asking to let them enlist in the IDF Armored Corps, on February 03, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

March 04, 2021 12:32

Those who have been following the furore in Britain this week over whether the Jewish community is an ethnic minority will be intrigued that the Israeli High Court in its latest ruling on non-Orthodox conversions dealt with a related question.

The court, after lengthy delays, grew weary of the government’s reluctance to settle the issue through legislation and 16 years after the original petitions were filed, has now issued its ruling. It was hardly a game-changer, as in previous rulings, it had already recognised Reform and Conservative conversion carried out abroad and agreed that those converts could become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. It had also ruled that Israeli citizens who had undergone non-Orthodox conversions in Israel would be registered by the state as Jews. The petitioners in this case were a small group, mainly spouses of Israelis who live in Israel as residents, not citizens. Finally they will be allowed to become full citizens as Jews, under the Law of Return.

In her majority opinion, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut stressed that they were ruling, “only on the questions of status under the Law of Return. This is a civil-public question, not a religious one.” Her colleague, Justice Neal Hendel, echoed her, saying that, “we mustn’t mix between the question of eligibility for return and the wider question of Judaism.”

The judges rejected the argument that the British Mandatory law held that joining a “religious community” can only be approved by religious authority — in Jews’ case the Chief Rabbinate - since becoming an Israeli under the Law of Return is a civil matter, not a religious one.

The ruling has come under intense criticism from the strictly-Orthodox parties and some of their allies who do not accept the distinction made by the judges. From their perspective, it could only be a religious question. Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman, the political leaders of United Torah Judaism, said the ruling is “disastrous to the concept of a Jewish state. For generations the people of Israel knew its religion and faith, without fakes or imitations. And that’s how it will be in the future.” They threatened that after the election they would refuse to sit in any government that would not settle the matter in legislation and, for good measure, add an “overriding clause” to ensure the High Court doesn’t strike the new law down.

What is a Jew? This is one of the most fundamental questions and deepest controversies in Israeli politics. It has bedeviled the Jewish state since its foundation and will continue to rage for generations to come. The High Court insisted that it wasn’t deciding who is Jewish, just clarifying the civilian definitions of eligibility for Israeli citizenship. The strictly-Orthodox refuse to accept that such an issue can be anything but a religious matter. But the truth is that Israel has been accepting non-Orthodox converts as Jews for over two decades now. And the strictly-Orthodox parties have sat in government. It doesn’t really change anything for them anyway, as the Orthodox rabbinate continues to have a monopoly over performing marriage ceremonies and will refuse to marry any non-Orthodox convert. But it makes sense for them to turn this in to a campaign issue, less than three weeks before the election. They need a Gevalt!

Oy Gevalt!

Gevalt! (a Yiddish word that can roughly be translated as emergency) campaigns are standard for the last few days before an Israeli election. It’s when a party tries to scare its complacent base to turn out on the day. Benjamin Netanyahu is an expert at Gevalt! campaigns, usually managing to scare thousands of Likudniks and draw voters away from other right-wing parties with his trademark fear-mongering of a “leftist government” in cahoots with the “terror-supporting” Arab-Israeli parties.

But this election, the Gevalt! has come early.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud is languishing in the polls, despite the success of “his” vaccination programme, which was at the centre of his electoral strategy. So the prime minister, who usually gives media interviews only in the last week of the campaign, embarked on his interview-blitz three weeks earlier than usual. He was still presenting himself as the master-vaccinator, but this time there was a twist. The vaccines were the silver-bullet for Covid-19 but now he claimed (without any scientific evidence) that they were good for only six months and therefore every Israeli would need two doses every six months. And only he could ensure that Israel could secure 36 million doses of vaccine every year.

Another party embarking on its Gevalt! campaign is left-wing Meretz, which once again is teetering on the electoral threshold in the polls.

The High Court ruling on conversions has provided the two strictly-Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — with their own Gevalt!. And they need one, because despite the Charedi community’s demographic growth and high turnout, the polls are showing they may lose a seat each in the election.

Where are those votes going? Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s joint list of religious nationalists and Neo-Kahanists, “Religious Zionism”, seems to be appealing to young and young-at-heart Haredi voters. The vacuum in strictly-Orthodox leadership over the last year of pandemic has left many in the community angry and the younger generation, who feel that they have been falsely accused of spreading Covid-19, find the anti-establishment platform of Religious Zionism increasingly attractive.

Losing voters to another party would not just be a political blow. It could dramatically weaken the already shaky leadership of the Charedi rabbis, who order their followers to vote for Shas or UTJ. A Gevalt! campaign against the High Court is just what they need to burnish their own anti-establishment credentials and bring their angry young voters back home.

Travelling circus

l The UAV Engines factory in Staffordshire, a subsidiary of the Israeli corporation Elbit, has been a target for protestors in recent months. A group of them was arrested less than two weeks ago, when they managed to make it to the factory roof and daub the building’s walls with red paint. Another Elbit installation in Oldham was similarly attacked a month ago.

As things are going, the protestors who call themselves “Palestine Action” will have to start traveling even further afield over the next few years, to Cornwall and Scotland, as Elbit is now in charge of revamping the Royal Navy’s submarine school as part of a £120m contract in won in January to install and operate new submarine simulators.

The protestors’ main claim is that Elbit is manufacturing arms in the UK that are used by “apartheid Israel” to commit “war crimes against the children of Gaza.” In fact, Elbit’s operations in the UK have nothing to do with Israel’s military. Take the UAV Engines factory, for example. It builds and maintains engines used in the Royal Artillery Corps Watchkeeper drones. Elbit’s Hermès drones used by the Israeli Air Force have engines which are made in Austria.

The irony is that for all the calls by pro-Palestinian organisations to “stop arming Israel,” the IDF uses vanishingly small quantities of British kit. On the other hand, Elbit and other Israeli defence contractors have been supplying Britain’s armed forces with hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of weapons-systems annually. And that’s set to go up.

Elbit’s Watchkeeper drones help British artillery teams direct the medium-range Exactor missiles, manufactured by Israel’s Rafael. They will soon also be integrated with the Army’s MORPHEUS Battlefield Management Application, another system Elbit is supplying. The Royal Navy’s submarine training contract is coming on the heels of RAF’s subcontracting most of its pilot training to another Elbit subsidiary.

So many new locations for the protesters to visit.


March 04, 2021 12:32

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