Chanukah came early this year for the chareidi community living in Eretz Yisrael. In an effort to win the support of United Torah Judaism for the 2005 state budget, Prime Minister Sharon agreed to restore 290 million shekels of drastic cuts to the chareidi educational budget.
That restored funding would have been good enough news by itself. But it had the further effect of provoking Shinui leader Tommy Lapid to threaten Sharon that Shinui would vote against the budget if he carried out those promises to the chareidim. Sharon, the only Israeli prime minister in recent memory who cannot be intimidated by such threats, did not blink. He called Lapid’s bluff, and raised him. If Shinui voted against the budget, the Prime Minister told Lapid, he would fire all the Shinui ministers. The next day Shinui’s participation in the coalition was history.
Even Ha’aretz, which can usually be relied upon to support Shinui’s anti-religious agenda, did not hesitate to criticize Lapid for having acted irresponsibly. What great principle was involved in restoring the cut funding to chareidi education the paper demanded to know. Ha’aretz noted that Shinui could not make even a superficially plausible principled argument for its vote. UTJ had not sought any religious legislation so there could be no question of religious coercion or of Shinui being asked to transgress any of its sacred principles.
The money for chareidi education was no different than that apportioned for any other cause – such as the 45 million shekels in additional funding for the Israeli theater that Shinui secured at the outset of the current government. As the Ha’aretz editorial put it, "If Yosef Lapid had been asked to agree to the transfer of NIS 300 million to a Gush Katif arts yeshiva, and not an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) yeshiva, as part of the compensation for the disengagement, he certainly would have agree without hesitation. . . Shinui makes sure to use the term ‘extortion’ only towards one sector of the population, the Haredim, and everything is kosher in its war against them, and every refusal of their demands is considered an achievement."
The paper went on to accuse Lapid of having engaged in a demagogic campaign that was "nothing more than an exercise in public relations." (The next day, Ha’aretz’s Shachar Ilan attributed Lapid’s stubbornness to declining poll numbers that suggested that Lapid had not thrown enough anti-religious red meat to Shinui supporters of late.)
Others were even more scathing. Likud’s Knesset Whip Gideon Sar accused Shinui of anti-Semitism from the Knesset podium, "Interior Minister Poraz of Shinui said that a Jew is permitted to be anti-Semitic, and you fulfill that daily. What are you so upset about? Busing of pupils to kindergartens just because they’re ultra-Orthodox? Even the Treasury officials say this is reasonable, since it was slashed beyond reason." Investigative journalist Yoav Yitzchak wrote, "[Shinui voters] never gave Lapid a mandate to foster pathological hatred against religious Jews and chareidim. . . And surely they did not give him a mandate to steal the bread out of the mouths of chareidi children."
What particularly upset the critics, particularly Ha’aretz, was that Shinui’s political band standing had suddenly placed Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan in grave danger. Without Shinui in the coalition, Sharon has no choice other than to bring Labor into the coalition. But it is by no means certain that the Likud Central Committee – which previously voted against the inclusion of Labor in the coalition – will authorize such a move. That would leave no alternative to new elections in which Sharon would be forced to either form a new party or to seek the nomination of Likud, in which there remains great opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. In that light, Shinui’s refusal to countenance the allocation to UTJ, despite its frequently expressed support for the Gaza disengagement does indeed seem like an act of madness.
NOR WAS SHINUI THE ONLY VETERAN ANTI-CHAREIDI PARTY driven mad by the signs of a possible chareidi victory. Last week brought the news that the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has petitioned the Supreme Court to revisit its infamous decision stopping construction on a Lev L’Achim outreach center in Rechovot.
As readers of this column will recall, in the earlier case, the city of Rechovot allocated a plot of land to Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz, who has been engaged in outreach activities in Rechovot for more than thirty years. Twice the Supreme Court required the Rechovot city council to reconsider the allocation in light of the needs of secular residents of an adjacent neighborhood. And twice the Rechovot city council reaffirmed that allocation, the last time by a vote of 17-3, with three abstentions.
The Rechovot city council, made up of the democratically elected representatives of the citizens of Rechovot, was the natural body to determine the needs of Rechovot’s residents. Certainly the Rechovot city council members are better situated than Supreme Court justices, with no personal knowledge of the city, to determine the needs of the city’s citizens. So one might have thought. But no, after the municipality affirmed the allocation for the third time, the Supreme Court put its foot down, and retroactively applied a new set of procedural requirements to the Rechovot allocation, despite the fact that Rabbi Schwartz had already sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project.
What neither the Supreme Court nor IRAC counted on, however, is Rabbi Schwartz’s determination. He and the city of Rechovot began the whole process again, this time taking care to pass all the procedural hurdles that the Supreme Court placed in their path. All that awaits is final Interior Ministry approval that all the required procedures have been fulfilled.
The idea that Rechovot’s elected representatives feel the city can benefit from Rabbi Schwartz’s new outreach center is too much for IRAC to bear. That is why IRAC was back in the Supreme Court last week claiming that the city had not "genuinely" fulfilled the requirements of the interior ministry regulations on allocations of land – meaning that the city had fulfilled the requirements but had not reached a result satisfactory to IRAC.
One final irony in the way that Hashgachah Pratis intertwined these two stories: With Shinui no longer in control of the Interior Ministry, the last barrier to final administrative approval of the allocation is removed. The Supreme Court would have to engage in its most blatant anti-religious discrimination ever to rule against Rechovot.