Shinui’s Trojan Horse
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 28, 2003
The coalition negotiations between Shinui and the National Religious Party are being hailed in some quarters as heralding a new chapter in secular-religious relations. Effi Eitam, the nominal head of the NRP, even detects a newfound respect for Judaism in Shinui leader Tommy Lapid. Don’t expect Lapid, however, to be joining Eitam for Shabbos any time soon.
At first glance, the NRP does not appear to have conceded much. The half million non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who at present cannot marry in Israel, obviously created a situation in need of a solution. To permit non-Jews from the FSU to marry civilly is not on its face an earth-shattering change. It is doubtful, however, whether once the genie of civil marriage is out of the bottle it will be so easily contained.
Shinui did not press its demand for public transportation on Shabbos, and even agreed to "discuss" the NRP’s proposal for Sunday as a day off, which Shinui formerly denounced as an attempt to deny Israelis their divinely given right to shop at the mall on Saturday. Again, don’t expect discussions of the Sunday law to bear fruit anytime soon. Meanwhile Saturday shopping continues to grow, forcing more and more store owners and employees to give up their day of rest.
The primary threat to the original status quo, from the religious point of view, derives from Shinui’s great power in the new government. The irony here is that NRP was Shinui’s Trojan Horse to enter the coalition. A secular coalition was not in the cards due to Labor’s insistence on obtaining explicit commitments from Prime Minister Sharon on the diplomatic front that Sharon was unprepared to make. At the same time, Sharon had no intention of allowing his hands to be tied diplomatically by the National Union. Thus a Likud-Shinui-National Union government was never in the cards either.
As Justice Minister, Tommy Lapid will play a major role in the drafting of a new constitution. If he is true to his word, the constitution pushed by Lapid will be one that grants equality to all "streams" of Judaism, and thereby undermines the position of the Chief Rabbinate. The term a "Jewish state" becomes meaningless when wildly divergent and irreconcilable definitions of the term Jewish are all treated as equally legitimate.
Lapid can also be counted on to rubber stamp Court President Aharon Barak’s selections for the nine vacancies to the Supreme Court that will arise in the next three years, thereby preserving Israel’s unique system of judicial selection, in which the President of the Court dominates the selection process to the Court. The selection of nine philosophical clones of Barak to the Court ensures that the abstract terms of the new constitution will be used by the Court as a further grant of power to push Israel towards an American-style separation of religion and state.
The irony, then, is that the NRP, for whom the establishment of Orthodoxy as Israel’s religion is a matter of ultimate ideological significance, will, in all likelihood, become the instrument of its disestablishment. National religious ideology imbues the state with great theological significance as the first flowering of the Redemption. That characterization has always been dependent on the monopoly over matters of personal status of an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and preservation of a patina of certain halachic forms in the public sphere.
In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More turns to his betrayer, who has been appointed as Attorney-General for Wales, and asks derisively, "For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?" My guess is that the NRP’s constituents will soon be asking similar questions. If Prime Minister Sharon has proven one thing it is that politicians, like nations, have no permanent allies only permanent interests. Just ask the Likud development town mayors to whom he promised that come hell or high water Likud would retain the Interior Ministry, now slated for Shinui’s Avraham Poraz. Or ask Shas leader Eli Yishai, who effectively crowned Sharon prime minister two years ago by voting against dissolution of the Knesset, which would have allowed Binyamin Netanyahu to run against the hapless Ehud Barak. From election night, when he invited Tommy Lapid to his ranch, Sharon showed his clear preference for Shinui over Shas. Yishai was barely given the time of day in coalition negotiations.
NRP has absolutely no leverage on the new government’s diplomatic stance. Sharon has no reason to fear the NRP bolting if he recognizes a Palestinian state or undertakes to uproot settlements. At that point, he can count on Labor’s support from either within the coalition or outside.
AT FIRST GLANCE, the immediate losers from the new coalition would appear to be the haredim, who will be outside the government entirely for the first time since 1977. But as haredim are wont to say, "Our Father in Heaven runs the world," and they may yet have cause to find a silver lining in a dark cloud.
For one thing, if the economy does not improve in the near future and no solutions are found to a host of other intractable problems, at least it will no longer be possible to scapegoat the haredim. With the haredim excluded from the halls of power, Israelis will discover how miniscule has been the impact of haredi political power on the economy and how few of the country’s problems have anything to do with haredim.
The meteoric rise of Shas terrified the secular population with the specter of a coming theocracy. Those fears have always been irrational. Not one piece of legislation altering the religious status quo has been introduced since the advent of Shas, and the religious status quo has been constantly deteriorating in the direction of greater secularization. But the fear is real.
A lower profile for haredi politicians should allay that fear. In addition, the lowered political profile will diminish the association of religion with politics. These developments taken together can only improve the quality of religious secular discourse in the country by making it possible to carry on discussions of Torah without always prefacing them with talk of politics.
Not that all is rosy on the haredi street. The pending drastic cuts in child allowances and cancellation of the Big Family Law will hit hard. But to a large extent the economic situation made those cuts inevitable, regardless of who sits around the cabinet table. Those cuts in government support payments will be coupled with severe cuts in funding of haredi educational institutions, which already are funded at a much lower level that state schools, and result in much higher tuition bills for haredi parents at the same time that their disposable income has been drastically reduced.
The resulting economic dislocation in haredi society will also pose a test to Israeli secular society. They will have to ask themselves: What do we want – to crush the haredim, in the hope of driving their children from religion, or do we only seek to encourage a greater haredi participation in economic life.
It is unrealistic to expect kollel students to all suddenly begin to work in the midst of massive unemployment. But an expansion of programs to provide them with the necessary work training if and when the economy heats up again does make sense. So does removing the disincentives to men working, like the present system that awards women, but not men, tax credits according to the number of children in the family. Dismantling frameworks like the Tal Law and others that need to be created for older kollel students at precisely the moment when the incentives to work are highest makes no sense.
But, of course, all this depends on whether Tommy Lapid’s goal is to destroy Torah society or only to encourage an altered economic structure for that society.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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