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ISRAEL’S RELIGIOUS POLITICAL PARTIES worked for months to pass new religious legislation requiring convenience stores and groceries to close on the Sabbath. Few pieces of proposed legislation have caused more problems for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his secular and centrist Likud party.

What’s known as the minimarkets law (or supermarkets bill) deadlocked the Knesset for weeks. Shas, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox party for Sephardic Jews, threatened to topple the government if these bills were not immediately passed.

Israel’s religious politicians weren’t always so divisive, so why start now? My research on the political behaviour of Israel’s Jewish religious leaders suggests that these extreme religious bills are symptoms of the growing internal divisiveness and increasingly empowered “extreme” factions since the death of previous leaders.

Just a few months ago, members of the religious parties, including Shas, were quick to point out that there has never been a better government for them. Money to yeshivot (religious schools) had reached a record high. Previous legislation passed by the secular Yesh Atid party when the religious parties were in the opposition had been overturned.

Now, these same parties were threatening early elections if these bills were not passed. What changed? I argue that these extreme religious bills are symptoms of the growing internal divisiveness affecting religious leadership in Israel.

Deaths of powerful and politically moderate religious leaders such as Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Ovadia Yosef created a leadership vacuum in which more extreme factions have emerged. These new leaders oppose the old religious status quo reached by moderates at a time when the religious political parties possessed little power.

FULL STORY Why are Israel’s religious parties suddenly so influential? (Washington Post)

Photo: Jim Hollander/European Press Photo Agency

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