by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 14, 2003
The Knesset went into summer recess on a desultory note with the gutting of the Finance Ministry’s proposal to merge 206 serving less than 10,000 into larger authorities, at a projected savings of 2.2 billion shekels. Yet even with depressing stories of the terrible hardships caused by the government’s economic plan filling the media, the failure of the Knesset to enact more than a minimal merger plan, at estimated savings of 300-400 million shekels, occasioned little fury.
No screaming headlines proclaimed, "Billions for local authorities, less for starving children." No TV report juxtaposed pictures of pot-bellied local authority heads to empty refrigerators in Dimona.
The sordid political calculus behind the failure of the Finance Ministry’s merger plan is well-known. High-paying positions on local authorities are the preferred sinecures for the party hacks who comprise the Likud Central Committee, and few Likud MKs relished the thought of angering those who select the party’s Knesset list.
Yet the public’s general reaction has been little more than a shrug of the shoulders "that’s politics." That venality is part of the human condition is hardly news – certainly not in Israel today.
It is interesting to compare the public’s attitude towards superfluous local authorities with that toward religious councils. As with local authorities, the religious councils attract a fair number of party hacks interested in little work at relatively high pay. (Positions as head or deputy head of the religious councils are among the few such positions available to haredim, who are virtually shut out of the thousands of positions on government directorates and have no relatives working at El Al or IEC to secure them good jobs.)
The sums saved from closure of all the religious councils are trivial compared to the projected savings from amalgamation of the local authorities. When Religions Minister Yossi Beilin issued an administrative order stopping all payments to the heads and deputy heads of religious councils, the projected savings came to only 65 million shekels. The total budgets of the religious councils never exceeded 400-500 million shekels (and today are far less), and most of these costs would, in any event, have been picked up by the municipalities.
Despite the much smaller sums involved, exposes of the religious councils have been a hardy perennial of the media since Shas began to wrest control of the councils from the NRP in the late ‘80s. And politicians eager to ride the wave of anti-chareidi sentiment have repeatedly called for their closure. Meanwhile, in the five years since the Shahar Commission first recommended the amalgamation of smaller local authorities into larger ones, the issue has attracted virtually no attention.
Most telling, however, is the difference in tone when the subject is religious councils. Then we are no longer in the realm of everyday political corruption, but of something much more nefarious: the desire of the chareidi community to suck the very lifeblood of the secular population.
Comparing the treatment of wasteful local authorities with that of inefficient religious councils reveals the element of irrational hatred never lurking far from the surface of any discussion of charedim.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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