For the first time since the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, Israel will have a government without any chareidi parties as members. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succeeded in doing what many thought impossible – bringing together the National Religious Party and the anti-religious Shinui Party in one coalition.
In the end the common animus of the Shinui and the NRP for Shas provided the glue for this unlikely coalition, despite the threat to virtually every aspect of the religious status quo represented by Shinui. Protection of that status quo has always been the NRP’s raison d’etre.
Shinui garnered five ministries, including such plums as Justice, Interior, and Communications, while the NRP contented itself with two relatively minor ministries. When the NRP’s neophyte leader Effi Eitam boasted that he detected a new respect for religion in Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, he sounded like nothing so much as a man who just having had a wallet stuffed with bills taken by a pickpocket exults that the he outfoxed the pickpocket by leaving ten dollars in the other pocket.
Though the new coalition consists of only 61 MKs, it will nevertheless be relatively stable. A new law provides that a government can only be brought down in a no-confidence motion if an alternative coalition exists, and little common ground exists among the parties left out. (The National Union and the Histadrut party, Am Echad, may still join the government.) If Sharon takes steps that force the NRP to bold, such as dismantling settlements or moving towards the creation of a Palestinian state, he can always count on Labor’s support instead.
A sense of betrayal runs deep among those left out of the coalition. Shas put Sharon in the prime minister’s office in 2001 when it voted against disbanding the Knesset. That step would almost certainly have led to Binyamin Netanyahu, not Sharon, being the Likud standard bearer against the hapless incumbent Ehud Barak. Yet Sharon made clear his preference for Shinui over Shas from the moment the election results were in, inviting Tommy Lapid to his ranch on election night while barely giving Shas leader Eli Yishai the time of day. Negotiations between Shinui and NRP were conducted on behalf of the Likud by Ehud Olmert, erstwhile ally of the chareidi population in Jerusalem, whose votes allowed him to unseat Teddy Kollek nearly a decade ago.
THERE ARE certainly ample grounds for concern in the chareidi population. As we wrote last week, drastic budget cuts will hit both chareidi families and institutions very hard. While to a large extent these cuts are inevitable regardless of who sits around the coalition table, the absence of any chareidi voice makes it likely that they will fall disproportionately on the chareidi population. The new coalition has agreed to revoke the Tal Law on the draft of yeshiva students. Even if not a single yeshiva bochur is ultimately drafted, the mere reopening of this divisive issue will result in a new outpouring of animosity towards the chareidi public.
As the new Justice Minister, Tommy Lapid will oversee the drafting of a written constitution that will expand even further the power of the Supreme Court. Over the next three years, nine new justices will come up for appointment to the Court. Lapid can be counted on to give Court President Aharon Barak carte blanche in selecting judicial clones for those positions.
Virtually all funding of municipalities in Israel comes via the Interior Ministry. Thus when Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and the mayors of the new chareidi cities come to discuss their cities’ needs with the Interior Minister, they will find themselves facing the sympathetic visage of Shinui’s Avraham Poraz. And the religious pirate radio stations can expect a full scale war from the Shinui-controlled Communications Ministry.
ONE PHRASE will be frequently on the lips, and hopefully in the hearts, of Israel’s chareidi population in the coming months and years, "Der Aibershter firt de velt."
The Ribbono shel Olam’s protection does not guarantee that there will never be difficult times. It does mean that He will never abandon the community most devoted to the study and observance of His Torah. As difficult as the coming years may be, we have to keep reminding ourselves that the foundations of today’s thriving chareidi community were laid with far lower levels of government support than at present. And as simply as most chareidim live today, much is taken for granted that would have seemed unbelievable luxury to chareidi families thirty years ago. Grinding poverty is not an evil unknown to us.
Confidence in Hashem’s guiding hand requires us to view every thing that befalls us as part of a plan. Our awareness that what appears catastrophic from our immediate perspective may turn out to be a blessing in disguise obligates us to look for new opportunities in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
If we look hard, we can certainly find rays of hope in the present situation. The pending budget cuts will cut deeply into the flesh of the weakest half of Israeli society. With no chareidi parties in the government, the usual explanation that all the money has gone to the chareidim will no longer pass muster. No longer will it be possible to scapegoat chareidim for all that goes wrong in Israeli society. At a time that the Israeli economy is spiraling downward that is no small blessing.
The spectre of religious coercion largely fueled the rise of Tommy Lapid. It was easy for a demagogue to point to the meteoric rise of Shas has the harbinger of a theocratic state. Never mind that the religious status quo has been disintegrating dramatically in favor of the secular public for years, and that not a single piece of religious legislation altering that status quo has been introduced in more than a decade, Shas still terrified the secular public.
Chareidi politicians will of necessity have a much lower profile in the next Knesset. That will lessen the fear of a chareidi takeover. Less fear will translate into lowered tensions. One salutary result of those lowered tensions will be new opportunities to talk Torah with secular Jews. Today that discussion is too frequently preceded by a political discussion that seldom leaves any room for anything else.
THE CHAREIDI world faces a dramatically changed reality. Old structures and ways of doing things may no longer prove adequate to the task at hand. The issues of the day are no longer how to vote on a particular piece of legislation, for which answer each Knesset member can go to his particular Torah authority. No longer can the issues be approached on an ad hoc basis, each one taken up when it can no longer be avoided. Rather the new reality must be examined and thought about as a totality. That type of conceptual thinking must be ongoing, not intermittent, and it must draw on the vast intellectual and spiritual resources of our community.
When we have faced the difficulties that surround us, and determined our stance, we will then be in a position to confront those in the opposite camp and put the question to them directly: What is your goal? Do you seek to destroy the chareidi community totally, to close the yeshivos, to bring about widespread immiseration, to break chareidi families? Or do you seek specific goals that need not be inconsistent with the integrity of chareidi life?
If it is the latter, we can talk and search for a modus vivendi. If it is the latter, we will gather together and cut ourselves off from you, as we did in the ghettos of old. Before we can pose the question, however, we have much of our own thinking to do.