Shas’ return to the government on the humiliating terms dictated by Prime Minister Sharon’s terms strongly suggests that we may be witnessing the beginning of a steep decline in chareidi political power. Already last week reports circulated that Sharon and Labor Party head Binyamin Ben-Eliezer have agreed to set up a coalition after the next elections without the chareidi parties.
Chareidi political leaders have long assumed that the issues dividing Left and Right in Israel are more important to each side than the two parties’ shared antipathy to the chareidim. Only with the advent of peace with the Palestinians, it was assumed, would either of the two major blocks be willing to form a coalition without the chareidi parties. The possibility that the situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians would degenerate so far that Labor would disappear – was not even considered. Yet Sharon was able to send Shas packing precisely because he has so little to fear from new elections in which Labor would be virtually wiped off the political map.
Originally hailed as a major chareidi political triumph, the Large Family Law may turn out in retrospect to have marked the beginning of an era of declining chareidi power – a classic example of tafasta meruba lo tafsta.
To be sure there were those who recognized from the start the high price paid for passage of the Large Family Law. The Law occasioned a sustained outcry in the media, and not just from long-time chareidi-bashers. Secular politicians shried gevalt about chareidi extortion, and portrayed chareidim as instinctively turning to the state for new forms of support to make up for the shortfall in chareidi family budgets.
Hatred for chareidim is not something we can or should ignore. Not only does it pose a direct threat to our world, it also increases the alienation of secular Israelis from their religion.
Even in chareidi circles, many recognized that the idea of increasing benefits only from the fifth child and beyond was misbegotten. That device made it much harder to defend the bill as motivated by a concern with poor children in general. The majority of Jewish children living below the poverty level did not benefit from the law at all.
Worse, the provision of increased benefits only to families of five or more children almost explicitly turned the law into one for relief of chareidi and Arab families. Indeed, the vast majority of the payments from the state budget required by the Large Family Law went to Israeli Arabs, who outnumber chareidim by nearly two to one.
The Large Family Law, in fact, became a classic example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. According to National Insurance Institute officials, the Law provided an incentive for Palestinians to bring infants into Israel and register them as children of Israeli Beduins. (Beduins generally do not give birth in hospitals so it is impossible to verify whether the child being registered is really theirs.)
By drafting the Law in such a way that all the benefits go to chareidi and Arab families, the Law in effect gave legitimacy to Finance Minister’s Silvan Shalom’s return volley: a drastic cut in child benefits for those whose parents do not serve in the army. The Large Family Law and the Emergency Economic Plan thus became mirror images of one another: The first was designed to provide benefits davka for chareidim and Arabs, and the latter to cut benefits davka for chareidim and Arabs.
If we are witnessing a decline in chareidi political power, then our political representatives will be doing well to even protect the current level of benefits to chareidi families. Yet those benefits are increasingly incapable of alleviating the pressures of widespread poverty in the chareidi world, which is why so much political capital was invested in the Large Family Law in the first place.
The bottom line is that the chareidi world is going to have to confront the problem of poverty and devise its own solutions without depending upon the government as a patron of last resort.