Israeli parliament set for record influx of Orthodox lawmakers
By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - With Israel's election days away, Orthodox Jews swayed in prayer at a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, delaying his entrance while politicians waited politely.
The image captured a sea change in Israeli politics.
Orthodox Jews have left niche parties to join Likud and other mainstream factions, challenging the dominance of non-observant politicians and infusing Israeli politics with religious fervor and a harder line on the Palestinian conflict.
Opinion polls predict that religious politicians will end up with a record 40 of parliament's 120 seats after Tuesday's vote, compared with 25 in the outgoing assembly elected in 2009. Two decades ago only a score of lawmakers were religiously Orthodox.
While some Israelis rejoice, some in the secular majority fear the trend may alter the identity of a nation which has never marked out the troublesome boundaries between religion and state - and which also has a substantial Arab Muslim minority.
Many foresee renewed disputes over the "Jewishness" and the conversion of immigrants.
Others fret about further attempts by hardcore members of pro-settler parties such as Likud and the even harder line Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) group to rein in Israel's secular-minded high court, restrict civil liberties and step up monitoring of foreign funding for human rights and other groups.
"In the long run I see a weakening of the foundations of the state's democracy," said Israeli sociologist Batia Siebzehner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, citing the track record of Orthodox politicians urging the state to embrace religious law. Continued...