Ministers advance bill that would criminalize incitement against ultra-Orthodox

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The Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation voted on Sunday to back a bill that would criminalize incitement against ultra-Orthodox Jews, as part of Israel’s anti-racism laws.

“The time has come to draw a red line against dangerous and rampant incitement against the Haredi public,” said United Torah Judaism lawmaker MK Yaakov Asher, who sponsored the bill. “The bill will enable extracting a price from instigators and will clarify that Haredi citizens’ blood is not cheap.”

It was not clear what the specific penalties would be, but the legislation proposes to expand a 1977 anti-racism law (Hebrew link) to include punitive measures against those who incite to racism or violence based on race, national-ethnic background, and membership in the ultra-Orthodox community.

In its explanatory notes, the bill argues that the existing law defines racist incitement “only in cases in which the racism is due to [skin] color or belonging to a race or national-ethnic group, and the ultra-Orthodox population is not distinguished by color, race, or national-ethnic.

“In this regard, it should be noted that the ultra-Orthodox population… is distinguished by its clothing and lifestyle, so there is no rationale for an exception to the provisions of the law,” the notes read.

The bill blasts “an expanding phenomenon of incitement to racism toward the ultra-Orthodox population,” noting as “particularly grievous” cases where “the incitement is carried out by elected officials with the aim of dividing the people and thus reaping political gain, while harming the entire public and the unity of the people.”

“In this bill, it is proposed to expand the definition of racism to include the prohibition of inciting racism toward the ultra-Orthodox population,” and curtailing “the entrenchment of the phenomenon of racism towards the ultra-Orthodox population,” according to the proposal.

United Torah Judaism parliament member Yaakov Asher at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An identical bill was first presented by Asher in the previous Knesset.

It was re-filed in December, a month after the national elections that brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power, following a brief stint in the opposition. He leads a coalition made up of right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox parties that have pushed contentious legislation such as a package to overhaul Israel’s independent judiciary, and last month passed a two-year state budget that allocated billions for the ultra-Orthodox community — funds that had been demanded by coalition partners, but which are largely unpopular with the general public.

These funds include grants to yeshiva students, unregulated religious schools that do not teach core subjects like math and science, and funding a food stamp program that is not tied to working and is criticized as tailored to disproportionately benefit the ultra-Orthodox community.

An anti-government protest in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, prior to the state budget’s passage on May 24, drew thousands who accused the coalition of “looting” the state’s money, while allowing men in the ultra-Orthodox community to avoid employment and military service. Some ultra-Orthodox party members had threatened to vote against the budget and trigger snap elections had their demands not been met.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid at the time said the budget’s approval “brings no fresh tidings, no attempt to fight the cost of living – just endless extortion.”

“This budget is a violation of the contract with the citizens of Israel, and our children and children’s children will pay for it,” he said.

Prior to the budget vote, a TV host caused an uproar after calling ultra-Orthodox Israelis “bloodsuckers” during a panel discussion about the government’s financial priorities.

“How much burden can be placed on a third of this country in order to support all of these Haredi bloodsuckers, all these people who suck our blood?” host and model Galit Gutman said on her Channel 12 morning news show in May.

Israeli model and TV host Galit Gutman hosts the ‘Israel Calling’ concert, in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, on April 10, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“There’s no other word [for what the Haredim are doing],” Gutman said on Friday. “We have a new government that is simply milking its citizens. Our young people — those who serve in the army and go to university — will not stay here. I’m telling you, they’re sucking the blood [out of us]. They’re milking us, they have no shame, and we are done sitting here and [taking it].”

Gutman’s remarks were roundly denounced by Haredi politicians, coalition and opposition members. She later apologized.

The Haredi public and political parties have also drawn ire for their support for the judicial overhaul efforts, particularly the so-called “override clause” — which in its current form would allow the Knesset to cancel a High Court ruling by a majority of 61 votes. They say it is critical to prevent the court from intervening in their affairs, including their efforts to achieve a blanket exclusion for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox youths to the military.

Bills that have satisfied their demands regarding mandatory draft exemptions have been struck down by courts in the past, though non-service is widespread.

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