Filled with righteous indignation over the behavior of the haredi parties, Prime Minister Sharon fired all the haredi ministers and deputy ministers last week just in time for the next day headlines. The Israel press duly reported the firings as a spontaneous act, unsullied by political self-interest.
Well, maybe. But it is curious that a leading Israeli pollster predicted over lunch earlier the same day that Sharon would engineer a crisis with the haredi parties within two weeks. In addition, it is clear that Finance Minister Silvan Shalom deliberately prepared a poison pill for Shas that it could not swallow.
Had Shalom simply pushed for repeal of the Large Family Law or for an across-the-board cut in child allowances, the likelihood is that the haredi parties would have gone along. They did not fight to the bitter end the 12% cut in child allowances in January, and in private, many haredi MK’s concede that the Large Family Law, with its benefits only kicking in for the fifth child, was ill-conceived.
Under the guise of an economic emergency plan, however, Shalom pursued other goals, among them delegitimizing the haredi community. Thus he reverted to a long abandoned system of discriminating between children of those who serve in the army and of those who do not. Setting the social safety net at different heights for different sectors of the population may be good politics, but it is poor policy.
Shalom refused to conduct any negotiations with the haredi parties in the weeks leading up to the first reading of the emergency economic package, a good indication that he and Sharon hoped Shas would make their day by voting no.
That the firing of the haredi ministers and deputy ministers was carefully calculated does not, however, take away from the success of the maneuver. Ehud Barak promised a "secular revolution," but it was Sharon who first served the populace Shas’ head on a platter. And the crowds went wild.
In a land of altruists, all agreed that Shas’ greed had become intolerable. When the kibbutzim seek billions in second retirement pensions for members, whose first pensions were lost in poor investments, they are motivated only by concern for the common good. Ditto the Labor Party when it fights to protect the economically nonsensical Negev Law, and airport workers when they declare wildcat strikes tailor-made to destroy what little is left of the tourism industry that provides them with jobs.
We are kept up at night by the chorus of senior officials at the Bank of Israel demanding cuts in their exorbitant salaries and ministers and deputy ministers eager to vacate their posts to reduce the ridiculously bloated cabinet. Only Shas has failed to consider the public good in seeking to maintain child support payments.
Cutting the haredim down to size proved fantastic politics. Hatred of the haredi world runs wide and deep. Like it or not, that is a fact with which haredi leaders must contend.
For years, haredim have convinced themselves that the Likud is comprised primarily of "amcha Yidden," with a warm spot in their hearts for the old-time religion and its bearers. That picture underestimated the success of five generations of Zionist education. With some exceptions, like Limor Livnat and Uzi Landau, there is not much to distinguish the ambitious politicos on the Right from their opposite numbers on the Left, apart from their views on security issues. On most other matters, including their attitude to religion, there is little to choose between them.
The haredi world has long assumed that the issues dividing Right and Left are more important to each side than the shared desire to settle scores with the haredim. That the security situation might decline so far that the old Left/Right debates would become irrelevant was never anticipated. Sharon could afford to stick it to the haredim last week because he has so little to fear from Labor. In the event of new elections, Labor would be wiped off the political map.
What this means is that we may have witnessed the zenith of haredi political power. Far from being a great triumph, the Large Family Law likely marks the beginning of a steep decline in government support for the haredi sector – a classic illustration of the Talmud’s dictum, "Grab too much and you end up grabbing nothing."
The consequence of these trends is that the haredi world will be forced to confront directly the consequences of widespread poverty without looking to the government as a patron of last resort.
That said, the widespread rejoicing last week was both ugly and ill-considered. If the emergency economic plan passes, as appears certain at present, the haredi sector will suffer a 33% reduction in child support benefits over less than half a year. That represents a massive economic dislocation for tens of thousands of families that were barely putting food on the table as it was.
Yet I read not one word of concern last week for the plight of thousands of haredi children who will be going to bed hungry. For Arab children many such concerns were expressed; for Jewish children none.
It is unrealistic to suddenly tell all those learning in kollel: Go out and get a job. What jobs? More than 200,000 Israelis are already unemployed. Does anyone expect yeshiva students to replace Thai agricultural workers or Romanians in the building trades?
Economic changes are taking place over time in the haredi world. Technical educational institutes, for instance, are proliferating. Instead of rubbing their hands in glee over the thought of the poorest segment of society growing poorer, secular Israelis would be better advised about thinking about how they could facilitate those transformations in non-coercive ways that do not seek to destroy haredi life.
Passing the Tal Commission recommendations would be a major step. But there are plenty of others means. At present, only women receive income tax deductions according to the number of children in the family. Were those deductions to be granted on a per family basis, there would be substantially greater economic incentives for men presently learning in kollel to work.
The response of secular society to the new situation will provide a good test of whether the present antipathy to the haredi world is but a guise for hatred of religion.