With the latest opinion polls showing Tommy Lapid’s Shinui Party winning anywhere from 13 to 17 seats in the next Knesset, Israel’s chareidi population has good cause for alarm. If Shinui wins as many as 17 seats, and Likud as few as 28, as at least one weekend poll showed, it will be well nigh impossible for Prime Minister Sharon to form a government without Shinui. Since much of Shinui’s popularity owes to its frequently reiterated promise to never sit in a government with the chareidi parties, there is little chance that it will renege on this promise.
To be honest, Shinui’s proposals for "sticking it to" the chareidim enjoy a great deal of support among wide swaths of both the Likud and Labor party. Clearly no issues have resonated with the Israeli electorate to the same degree as those raised by Tommy Lapid, and secular politicians from all parties will therefore be extremely wary of being perceived as opposing the Shinui agenda.
What precisely is that agenda? Here is how Shinui’s advertisements put it: "Repeal the Tal Law – so that all young Jews serve equally in the IDF; Repeal the Large Families Law – so that all children are equal; Repeal the Rabbinate’s monopoly on religion so that all Jews are equal; Repeal the law forbidding Shabbos transport so that all passengers are equal; Repeal the extra financial benefits to haredim so that all citizens are equal."
Behind these slogans lies a fully developed program to "dry out" the chareidi community. Shinui’s Knesset leader Avraham Poraz outlined recently the Shinui plan in stages: "First of all, we'll demand doing everything that doesn't require legislation - closing down the religious affairs ministry, an end to payments to fictitious yeshivas, an end to payments to kollels. In short, we want to end the preferential treatment of the Haredim. We'll immediately dry up that flow of funding."
Then, according to Poraz, Shinui will demand that the transportation minister sign an order allowing public transport on Saturdays, and that the government provide financing to the Reform and Conservative moments. Those actions that require legislation, like "canceling the Tal Law and establishing quotas for a Haredi draft into the army" or establishing civil marriage - "first for those barred from marriage and then for everyone" - will take place during the term in office, says Poraz.
The chareidi public obviously has a great deal to fear from Shinui, and apprehension runs high. At the end of the day, however, it is the secular public that should be more concerned about what Shinui’s current high standing in the polls reveals.
The dramatic rise in support for Shinui reflects a sense of hopelessness on the part of the Israeli public – a feeling that there are no solutions to the major challenges confronting us and that none of the candidates for prime minister are even making the slightest pretense of providing answers to our quandaries. The January 11 New York Times characterized the previous day’s Maariv poll as showing a state of "near hopelessness" on the part of the Israeli public. Though Prime Minister Sharon remains the overwhelming choice of voters over his Labor opponent Amram Mitzna, 64% say that he has no solution to the most pressing problem of Palestinian terror versus only 26% who believe he does have a solution. On the issue of the floundering economy, he fares no better.
Shinui makes no claim of having any solutions to either Palestinian terrorism or economic malaise, and, in fact, rarely even mentions these issues, apart from attributing every budgetary shortfall to money squeezed out of the government by the chareidim. A vote for Shinui, then, only makes sense in the context of a public that has despaired of hope for any resolution of the major challenges facing Israeli society. The attitude seems to be: There is no hope of ending the violence or the economic slump so at least let us take revenge on the one enemy that it is within our power to harm: the chareidim.
The mood of despair is itself a major cause for concern. Messianic movements in Jewish history have always arisen at times when despondency was prevalent. Shabbetai Tzvi, for instance, followed in the direct aftermath of the Chelminicki massacres. That is true of secular messianism as well. Oslo was a product of precisely such despair caused by the shock of the first intifada. Today as well, there is evidence of Israelis once again eager to clutch at any straw that holds the promise of ending the current impasse. The idea of a massive wall dividing Israel from her Palestinian neighbors is but the most popular current idea, though virtually the entire security community views such a wall as a recipe for disaster.
The second disturbing aspect of the widespread support for Shinui is the degree of alienation from all things Jewish reflected. One need not be a hater of Jews to be moved by Tommy Lapid’s "issues" – the yoke of supporting large chareidi families and the refusal of chareidim to share in any formalized national service. (And indeed much of Lapid’s current support comes not from hardcore haters but from those who feel they have no alternative.)
But Lapid goes far beyond his issues; he seeks to arouse a visceral hatred of chareidim, and delights in expressing his contempt for every aspect of Jewish tradition. Shinui MK Yossi Paritzky has even introduced legislation to keep stores open on Yom Kippur. Shinui shamelessly tars all chareidim with the same caricatures that European anti-Semites once used to tar all Jews.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the fact that an Israeli party has made hatred of other Jews such a central part of its message is that Shinui is even more popular among the educated young than among the general population. Lapid is "cool." And that reflects the degree to which our young are cut off from any sense of themselves as Jews.
Most students in an elite Tel Aviv high school could not tell a TV interviewer how Israel came to be in the Golan Heights. And if events of little more than thirty years ago are unknown to them, how much more so the broad panorama of Jewish history. No wonder Israeli soldiers can sit down to play cards after a visit to Auschwitz and teenagers engage in the lowest forms of entertainment after touring the death camps. They feel no connection to those who were incinerated there.
Reviewing an new Israeli textbook produced by the Ministry of Education over nearly a decade, Hillel Halkin lamented, "There are many words missing here, the smallest of which is `we’. Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people he is reading about; . . . that their story is his story."
A lack of sense of ourselves as a People with a connection to the Land lies at the root of the Palestinians’ strong sense that the future belongs to them. That is why Arafat placed such an emphasis at Camp David on Israeli renunciation of sovereignty over Har HaBayis. He correctly saw that if Israelis were to abase themselves by admitting that Har HaBayis is more important to Moslems than to Jews another dramatic cut would have been made in the chords binding us to our history. (The leading Israeli negotiator on Jerusalem issues at Camp David has subsequently written that Har HaBayis is, and has been perceived as such by all major Zionist leaders, an unwanted burden.) No wonder that Yair Sheleg, a frequent critic of the chareidi community, could write in Ha’Aretz that chareidi yeshiva students do more for the country hovering over their Gemaras than they would in the army, for they are the last bastions of Jewish identity.
The hopelessness of the Israeli population and its alienation from its history are not two separate phenomena but one. Those lacking any vision of what brought us to this Land, any sense of themselves as the bearers of a glorious tradition, can see no real purpose in enduring what must – at least in the short-run – be endured if we are to survive in this Land. At most, they will fight the Palestinians because they have no wish to leave the land in which they were born or to commit suicide. But at some point, without some positive vision of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, they will ask themselves whether the struggle is worth it and head for safer places.
That is why secular Israelis should worry about the rise of Tommy Lapid even more than religious ones. He has provided us with a chilling measure of our national soul.