Not a passing phenomenon
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 18, 2003
The impact on the chareidi community of Eretz Yisrael of Shinui’s remarkable success in the last election is at once both badly overstated and understated.
In what respect overstated? Shinui is frequently blamed for the huge budget cuts to chareidi educational institutions and in child allowances to large families. It serves the interests of certain politicians, chief among them Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to give Shinui the "credit." Netanyahu tells every chareidi delegation that he meets that the cuts fell disproportionately on the chareidi community, but that he is powerless to change them because of coalition agreements signed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid.
Netanyahu personally has no interest in permanently alienating the chareidi street, which has in the past offered him its support. But it would be a mistake to view the current budget priorities as exclusively those of Shinui. Likud was, at most, "forced" into precisely the coalition agreement that it sought.
From the time of Sharon’s showdown with Shas in his last government, he was determined to form a government without any chareidi parties. The victory over Shas only whetted his appetite.
Chareidi negotiators during the coalition discussions leading up to the formation of the present government consistently reported that the attitude of Likud negotiators was every bit as hostile as that of the Shinui. And the National Religious Party was not far behind in its enthusiasm for large cuts to chareidi institutions until it discovered that its own institutions were going to be severely hit as well.
At most, the large bloc of Shinui seats made it easier for Sharon to form a coalition without any chareidi parties. But even if there had been no Shinui, most of its seats would probably have gone to the Likud, which shares its budgetary priorities.
Ironically, only if the left-wing parties – Labor or Meretz – had picked up the Shinui seats might the chareidi community have been spared. Not because of any particular solicitude of these parties for chareidim. Rather because of their concern for Israel’s Arab population, they would never have countenanced budget cuts of up to 75% from the allowances to large families.
MANY HAVE predicted that Shinui will go the way of other insurgent third-parties, which burst onto the political scene with a great initial success only to disappear by the next election. Yigal Yadin’s Dash Party in the late ‘70s and the Center Party, headed by Yitzchak Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in the late ‘90s are but the best known examples of the phenomena.
Such predictions, however, may be too sanguine. What ultimately did in Shinui’s predecessors was their failure to deliver anything tangible to their voters. In part, that was a result of having no well-defined platform other than being "new."
Shinui, however, does not fit that pattern. First, the party has already dramatically increased its strength in two successive elections, and can no longer be dismissed as a flash in the pan. Second, Tommy Lapid has done a brilliant job of focusing on a very specific political platform of sticking it to the chareidim.
Finally, it cannot be said that Shinui has no ``accomplishments." Shinui will reap the credit with its voters for the anguish of the chareidi community over the budget cuts. Whether that credit is deserved or not is besides the point.
Moreover Shinui’s "accomplishments" have not been limited to the budget. Interior Minister Avraham Poraz has been misusing the power of his office to unilaterally rewrite Israeli law with respect to conversion and citizenship. All of his steps have had one purpose -- undermining whatever little remains of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Thus he has refused to grant automatic citizenship under the Law of Return to those converted by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
I know personally of one case in which a sincere convert from the former Soviet Union who was sent packing three times by the Interior Ministry in his bid to obtain citizenship. The third time came even after a specific directive from the Prime Minister to the Interior Minister informing him that he had no power to deny citizenship to Orthodox converts in Israel. The Prime Minister’s intervention followed a sharp protest from Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein over Poraz’s actions.
Last week, Poraz terminated a program that has brought 100 members of the Bnei Menashe tribe in India to Israel annually. The Bnei Menashe believe themselves to be descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes, but always undergo Orthodox conversion in Israel, and, by and large, are fully shomer mitzvot subsequent to conversion. Poraz explained his position in terms of worries that conversion will become a means for all types of poor people from the Third World to attain Israeli citizenshp. The evident desire of the Bnei Menashe to become Jewish is in Poraz’s eyes irrelevant, perhaps even a negative factor.
At the same time, Poraz has granted Israeli citizenship to non-Jewish professional soccer players playing in Israel and wants to grant citizenship on "humanitarian" grounds to all children of foreign workers, whether legal or illegal, who were raised in Israel. Once again, it appears that his goal is to create a country whose citizenry is less Jewish.
But the well-publicized actions of Shinui, in general, and Poraz, in particular, understate the party’s impact to date. All municipal budgets in Israel are allocated via the Interior Ministry, That gives the Interior Minister enormous power at the local level. For that reason, the Interior Ministry has always been one of the most hotly contested ministries.
And Poraz is using the full power of his office to harm religious interests. A leading kiruv activist told me last week that his organization is finding itself stymied at every turn around the country. When Eli Yishai of Shas was Interior Minister, mayors were only too happy to waive zoning regulations to allow for a religious kindergarten. Today those same mayors are busy erecting every possible stumbling block in front of new religious institutions in order not to incur the wrath of Poraz. The new mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, was considered one of the secular Knesset members most favorably disposed to religious interests when he served as a Labor Party MK. In the last election, however, he ran on the Shinui slate, and his new municipal coalition includes every party on the city council besides the chareidi factions.
Shinui is even making a move in development towns. In the past, Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has cheerfully admitted that the party’s appeal is to the upper economic strata and not to "Mazal in Dimona." Flush with its recent electoral triumph and continued adoring press coverage, however, Shinui is now mounting concerted local campaigns on the periphery far from its main electoral base.
One city targeted by Shinui is Migdal HaEmek. Today Migdal HaEmek is one of the few cities in the country in which no stores are open on Shabbos. All that could change, however, warns Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, head of Migdal Or institutions, if the well-financed Shinui slate does well in the upcoming municipal elections.
Most ominous is the Teflon effect that continues to surround Shinui in the press. All the evidence to date points to Interior Minister Poraz having voted twice – once from his own seat and once from that of a fellow MK – in the voting on the state budget. Yet while the double-voting scandal, in which at least a half dozen MKs are implicated, has drawn a great deal of press coverage, the apparent culpability of Poraz has gone almost unnoticed.
Last week provided an even more striking example of the symbiotic relationship between Shinui and the mainstream press. Tommy Lapid called a press conference to announce that Shinui had been granted 123 million shekels from the Finance Ministry. Lapid declared that 45 million would go to subsidies for Israeli theaters and another 55 million to university tuition reductions.
The grant to Shinui harkened back to a long discredited system of "special allocations" to individual Knesset members, whereby Knesset members received money that they could distribute as they wished without criteria. At one time, much of the funding of Torah educational institutions came via the special allocations to individual chareidi Knesset members. That system made it easy for anti-religious forces to keep up a steady drumbeat of complaint against chareidi extortion.
For years, chareidi MKs devoted their efforts to ending this system and getting allocations to chareidi institutions included in the regular budget. While they were successful in ending the system of "special allocations" through individual Knesset members, much of the budget of chareidi institutions still comes in the form of "supplemental budgets," which have to be renogiated every year, and which inevitably give rise to charges of chareidi extortion.
Now here was Tommy Lapid, the embodiment of anti-chareidi sentiment and the champion of "good government" and the "rule of law," boasting last Wednesday of exploiting a discredited system that he had attacked so frequently in the past. For good measure, the allocation of funds directly to Shinui appears to be blatantly illegal. The law requires all coalition agreements relating to monetary allocations to be revealed to the Knesset prior to voting on the budget and that was not done.
Yet neither the blatant hypocrisy nor apparent illegality elicited comment from any editorial or op-ed writer in any of the major papers in the two days after Lapid’s announcement. Rather Lapid was hailed for saving Israeli theatre, the "batei Knesset of the secular," as he put it.
No doubt Hashem has already laid the basis for the downfall of Shinui in ways that we cannot even imagine today. But from the earthly perspective the party still seems to be settling in for a long and successful run.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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