How Jewish should the Jewish state be?
Question shadows Israeli vote
In Israel, Jewish men and women are drafted into the military, but the ultra-Orthodox are largely exempt. Unlike other Israelis, many ultra-Orthodox receive state subsidies to study the Torah and raise large families.
And in a country that calls itself home to all Jews, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have a state-sanctioned monopoly on events like marriage, divorce and religious conversions.
A series of political twists has suddenly jolted these issues to the fore, and the country's long-simmering secular-religious divide has become a central issue in the national election on Tuesday.
In a country buffeted by a festering conflict with the Palestinians, increasingly open warfare with Iran and a prime minister facing indictment on corruption charges, the election has been surprisingly preoccupied with the question of just how Jewish - and whose idea of Jewish - the Jewish state should be.
"I have nothing against the ultra-Orthodox, but they should get what they deserve according to their size," said Lior Amiel, 49, a businessman who was out shopping in Ramat Hasharon. "Currently, I'm funding their lifestyle."
This election was supposed to be a simple do-over, a quick retake to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a second chance to form a government and his opponents another shot at running him out of office.
Instead it has become what Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, calls "a critical campaign for the trajectory of the country."
Blame Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular politician who forced the new election by refusing to join Netanyahu's coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. The hill Lieberman chose to fight on was a new law that would eliminate the wholesale exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers wanted to water it down. Lieberman refused to compromise.
It may have been a ploy to grab attention, but it struck a nerve. Almost overnight, Lieberman's support doubled, and he became an unlikely hero to liberals.
For years, says Jason Pearlman, a veteran right-wing political operative, the two main axes of Israeli politics, religion and the Palestinians, had been "zip-tied" together.
Netanyahu's longtime coalition was just such a merger - right-wing voters, who favoured a hard line toward the Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox, who promised a bloc vote in exchange for concessions on religious issues.
"What Lieberman did was to snap those zip-ties, popping the axes back apart," Pearlman said.
Secular and liberal leaders from the left and centre responded by effectively joining forces with the right-wing Lieberman against the prime minister's ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies.
These rebels say that the mushrooming ultra-Orthodox population, with its unemployed religious students and large families subsidised by the state, is imposing excessive fiscal and social burdens on other Israelis. -NEW YORK TIMES