Woman protesting, Release of Hostages
An Israeli protester calls for the release of hostages. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

Ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to support Netanyahu’s Gaza campaign, while secular Israelis care more about the hostages than eliminating Hamas.

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TEL AVIV, Israel — The haunting call to prayer of the muezzin from the mosque in the Old City of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, pierces the November sky in a sudden burst of melodious sound. A group of young surfers, facing the sea, pause momentarily and are then lost from sight in the waves.

Tel Aviv is bustling, everything seems normal. However, less than 60 miles south of here, Israeli troops are engaged in the most violent military operation in the country’s history.  

The Israeli attack on Gaza has involved dropping more than 22,000 bombs on the enclave in just six weeks. Most of the bombs were provided by the US. According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, the intense fighting has already resulted in over 18,000 deaths. More than a hundred Israeli soldiers have also been killed, around a fifth of them from friendly fire.

The early weeks immediately after Hamas’s attack on October 7 brought unity and national cohesion in Israel. Today the divisions in Israeli society are more pronounced than ever, and a portion of the population holds Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responsible for letting Hamas slaughter more than 1,200 unsuspecting Israeli civilians.

“I didn’t vote for Netanyahu,” explains 24-year-old Israeli reservist Gal with a hint of bitterness. “But at least we thought he could defend the country.”

Gal is what is known in Israel as a “Hiloni,” a secular Jew. He has a tanned face and wears casual attire, and he used to work as an entertainer in one of the hotels along the Tel Aviv shoreline before October 7.

“On October 8th, my commander called me, and I returned to my barracks,” he explains, pointing to the M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder. Like many Israelis, Gal doesn’t mince words when it comes to Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu was elected on two promises,” he says. “One was to revive the country’s economy, and the other was to protect it. He failed on both counts.” Gal finds it especially irritating that Netanyahu’s coalition supporters (the religious factions) continue to back him.

“If Bibi wasn’t so focused on protecting the settlers in the West Bank, maybe none of this would have happened,” says Gal’s girlfriend Niri, referring to the prime minister by his familiar nickname.

Gal and Niri, Tel Aviv

Gal and Niri by the sea in Tel Aviv. Photo credit: Iryna Matviyishyn / WhoWhatWhy

More than ever, the Israeli prime minister, who has served in office longer than anyone else, finds himself and his Likud Party in a precarious political position.

According to a poll by the Lazar Institute conducted weeks after the attack, nearly 80 percent of Israelis hold Netanyahu responsible for the October 7 attacks, and, according to a poll released by the Dialog Center, 56 percent demand his resignation,

Nevertheless, Nitzan Perelman, a sociologist and specialist in Israeli society, asserts that various polls indicate that the majority of Israelis are not ready for a change in government until the military operations are over.

Once the war is concluded, however, according to Israel’s Channel 12, Netanyahu’s opposition, led by former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, could secure 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Perelman also cautions that it is hard to tell which actors will emerge on the political scene when and if Netanyahu is forced to step down.

“We could, for example, witness the return of former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Israeli far-right party Yamina,” she says.

According to her, Bennett might not be guaranteed victory, but he could divert votes away from Likud.

However, Perelman points out that Netanyahu’s current drop in the polls is no guarantee that he won’t be able to hold on to office for some time.

“The risk is that Netanyahu prolongs the state of conflict to avoid elections,” fears Perelman.

Woman protesting, Release of Hostages

A protester calls for the release of hostages. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

The Power of Religious Groups

Netanyahu can certainly count on the support of the majority of the religious electorate in Israel, which has been voting for him or parties that support him for years.

Since his first term in 1996, Netanyahu has often relied on Orthodox Jewish parties such as Shas and the United Torah Judaism party. With an average of eight seats per election over the past 10 years, these parties have repeatedly enabled Netanyahu to win reelection in exchange for religious concessions.

Moreover, with a rapid demographic growth rate of 6.7 children per woman, the religious population gradually gains a larger share of the electoral pie each year. According to the National Economic Council of Israel, by 2050 they could represent a quarter of the Israeli population.

“Israelis, especially the religious, vote less for political ideas than for their castes,” explains Michael, a 35-year-old Franco-Israeli from a Sephardic Orthodox family. “They vote for those who will protect their religious interests, and Netanyahu understands this and offers them everything they demand in exchange for their votes.”

This is why Michael doesn’t believe that either political renewal or Netanyahu’s departure are guaranteed. He is convinced that Israeli society, deeply divided between religious and nonreligious, operates according to tribal and communal reflexes that paralyze the electoral system.

The March of the Hostages

This trend was confirmed during the protest march from November 15-18, when families of Israeli hostages walked from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to demonstrate against Netanyahu’s government and demand the release of their loved ones.

While thousands of protesters marched in support of the victims’ families, practically none of the protesters were from the religious groups that support Netanyahu.

Irina, husband, protest, release of hostages

Irina and her husband at the protest for the release of hostages in Jerusalem. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

In slightly accented French, Irina, a 55-year-old protester, explains that the march took place on a Saturday, during Shabbat, a period in which observant orthodox Jews do not engage in any activity.

“This is something we can understand,” she says, “but nothing prevents them, for example, from joining us after nightfall, right after Shabbat.”

Michael has a more direct explanation. “The fact that this demonstration was organized by Hilonims (seculars) discredited it in the eyes of the religious,” he explains. “They will never associate themselves with them.”

Another reason, according to Irina, is the simple fact that there are no ultra-Orthodox Jews among the hostages, which, according to her, was enough reason not to participate in the march.

“But, above all,” she explains, “their rabbis and leaders support Netanyahu, so they will never come out to protest against him or demand his resignation.”

Haïm confirms Irina’s remarks. Born in Morocco, Haïm, who is 75, has lived in Israel since he was four years old and was one of the few religious Jews present at the protest.

Even though Shabbat had not yet ended, he decided to join the protest, asserting that no prohibition in the Torah prevented him from participating.

Haim, Protest, Release Hostages

Haïm at the protest for the release of hostages in Jerusalem. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy

“Even if it were prohibited, the survival of the Jewish people is more important, and when life is threatened, we must not observe Shabbat,” says Haïm, who carries a sign bearing several Bible verses calling for peace and reconciliation: “For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will speak of peace” (Psalm 8) and “The Lord will give strength to his people and bless his people with peace” (Psalm 29).

“We are all brothers; we are one body. When one of our brothers suffers, we suffer with him,” he explains.

“But Israeli society is deeply divided between secular and religious, peace activists and nationalists. And even October 7th doesn’t seem to heal our divisions, and Netanyahu knows it and plays with our differences, all to stay in power,” he concludes with a long sigh.

Habima Square, Tel Aviv, memorial

At Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, passersby pay their respects to the victims of the October 7 attacks. Photo credit: Joseph Roche / WhoWhatWhy


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