Over lunch last Tuesday, a leading Israeli pollster predicted that Ariel Sharon would engineer a crisis with the chareidi parties within the next two weeks, and that his popularity would soar as a consequence. He did not have to wait long for that prediction to be proven right.
That same night, after the government’s emergency economic plan was defeated on a first reading in the Knesset, Sharon fired five Shas ministers and two deputy ministers from United Torah Judaism. All had voted against the plan because of the significant cuts in child support allowances.
The Israeli press dutifully reported Sharon’s decision to fire the ministers and deputy ministers as a spontaneous outburst of righteous indignation. Yet the prediction of my pollster friend belies that picture. Indeed the behavior of Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and Treasury bureaucrats in the weeks leading up to last Tuesday’s vote strongly suggests that Sharon and Shalom were deliberately courting a break with the chareidi parties.
The declared purpose of the emergency economic plan was to dramatically trim the budget in light of the large deficit caused by Operation Defensive Shield and the sharp decline in government revenues due to the ongoing recession. Yet the Finance Minister’s plan was obviously not based on purely economic considerations. Most notable in this regard was Shalom’s decision to distinguish between children of those who serve in the army and those who do not in setting the levels of child support payments from the National Insurance Institute. In returning to the old system of reduced handouts for children whose fathers did not serve in the army, Shalom expressed his determination to distinguish between the productive and non-productive elements of society.
Shalom’s plan thus contained a poison pill that he knew the chareidi parties could not swallow. The chareidi parties did not fight until the bitter end against the government’s 12% cut in child support payments in January, and they could likely have been persuaded to accept the necessity of further cuts at present. But what they could not accept was the invidious distinction between chareidi children and other Israeli children.
Shalom’s refusal to conduct serious negotiations with the chareidi parties in the two weeks leading up to the vote on the government’s emergency economic platform provides fruther evidence of his intent to create a crisis with the chareidi parties.
Shas’s reaction to the firing of its members combined equal parts of shock and outrage at the perceived betrayal. That sense of betrayal is understandable. Sharon is only prime minister today because of Shas. Had Shas voted to dissolve the Knesset prior to the last elections, there is no doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu, and not Sharon, would have been the Likud standard-bearer, and would be prime minister today. (Netanyahu had refused to run for prime minister unless elections for a new Knesset were held simultaneously.) Of course, Shas had its own political calculations for not wanting new elections, in which it would likely have lost seats. But Shas chairman Eli Yishai knew very well that his decision whether or not to dissolve the Knesset was a choice of Sharon over Netanyahu for prime minister.
As predicted by my pollster friend, Sharon’s decision to "finally stand-up to the chareidim," proved wildly popular. His approval ratings shot above 70%, while those of his most likely opponents in any elections hover just above single digits. It has long been axiomatic in Israeli politics that the quickest way to boost popularity is to bash the chareidim. But whereas previous prime ministers, like Ehud Barak, had only promised to deliver a "secular revolution," whenever they needed a quick shot in the arm in the polls, it was left to Sharon – long believed to enjoy close relations with chareidi leaders – to deliver the most stinging body blow.
WHAT lessons can we learn from last week’s debacle? The first concerns the relationship of the right-wing to the chareidi world. Because most chareidim hold right-wing opinions on security issues, and because chareidi parties have been coalition partners in every right-wing government, many chareidim have convinced themselves that those on the right-wing have a warm spot in their heart for them.
The historic alliance between the right-wing parties and the chareidim goes back to Menachem Begin’s first government in 1977. And it was greatly reinforced in 1990, when the determination of whether Yitzchak Shamir or Shimon Peres would form the next government rested in the hands of the two-man Degel HaTorah faction in the Knesset. Expectations on the Left ran high that HaRav Elazer Schach, zt"l, the spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah, would side with the Left, whose views on the peace process were believed to be closer to his own.
With the whole world watching, however, Rav Schach dashed the hopes of the Left in a speech at Yad Eliyahu stadium. He declared that the natural alliance of the Torah world was with the Right. The Left, he charged, had severed its ties with Jewish history, and viewed its Judaism as little more than an unwanted burden.
Rav Schach knew that most on the Right were not mitzvah observant. But he also knew that they had not yet hung out the "out of business" sign on their Jewish identity. They still took pride in being Jewish, and had an affection for Jewish tradition. If the Torah world were to abandon them at that moment, Rav Schach feared, their remaining connection to Torah and commandments might be severed.
However true that picture may have been 12 years ago, it no longer reflects reality. To be sure, there are still those in Likud for whom issues of Jewish identity are central -- Limor Livnat and Uzi Landau, for instance. But veteran chareidi-basher Roni Milo feels perfectly comfortable returning to today’s Likud.
The Right is not comprised exclusively of stall owners in Machane Yehudah. A half century of Zionist education has been successful in eradicating Jewish pride across the political spectrum. Apart from security issues, there is little to separate the ambitious young politicos on the Right from their opposite numbers on the Left. That is one reason so little changes from left-wing to right-wing governments on such crucial issues as the power of the Supreme Court.
The danger of over-reliance on the Right as our benefactors is one important lesson of last week.
The second lesson – closely connected to the first – is the extreme vulnerability of the chareidi community. If the new economic program passes, as appears likely, the result will be a 33% cut in child support benefits for chareidi children since January. For tens of thousands of chareidi families that lost income represents a very large part of the total family income. Those families are barely putting food on the table today. They have no savings to draw upon if a child or children have certain special needs, and certainly nothing left to deal with any major tragedy, or with which to marry off their children. For these families, the loss of child supplement payments constitutes a major blow – in many cases the difference between having enough to eat and not having enough to eat.
The appropriate level of the social safety net is a hotly debated issue in every democracy. While we might hope that the general Israeli population would recognize the value of large Jewish families, and even the value of the Jewish state facilitating long-term Torah study for thousands of chareidi men, that popular support is, to put it mildly, not a given.
Until now, the chareidi world has relied upon its crucial role in any government coalition to protect a certain level of child support payments. The assumption has been that the issues dividing Left and Right were more important to each side than was their shared antipathy for the chareidim, and that they would therefore prefer forming electoral alliances with the chareidi parties to allying with one another. Only with the advent of peace with the Palestinians – something devoutly prayed for but hardly anticipated in the near future – would the large parties join together to settle scores with the chareidim. Or so the theory went.
What was not anticipated is that the security situation might degenerate so far that one side of the political debate would simply disappear, leaving the other side with a great deal of flexibility to deal with smaller coalition parties. That, however, is what has now happened. The "peace camp" has largely fallen off the political map. Labor cannot walk away from the national unity government and force new elections because it knows it would be wiped off the political map. That new reality is what gave Sharon the flexibility tp act as he did last week.
The issue thrust upon us by Sharon’s "triumph" last week is: What can be done about the widespread poverty in the chareidi community and the dependence on government support payments fostered by that poverty? Without some answers to that question our entire way of life remains under constant threat.