Justice, justice thou shall ignore
How can Israel deprive Haredi politicians of their kingmaker role and establish trust between the state and its citizens?
There's no doubt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves a rousing round of applause. His daring and skill in recent weeks have been extraordinary. First, in a holiday interview with TheMarker, he declared that "if you remove the Arabs and the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] from the inequality indexes, we're in excellent shape." Then he said he understood the motivations behind last summer's social protests, and finally he promised to draft the Arabs and the Haredim (immediately! ) into the army and/or national service.
The exhausted public evidently doesn't believe a word of it, though; otherwise, such statements would have sparked an argument, or at least some kind of reaction. But apart from routine expressions of loathing by those who hate him and warm support from his fans, nothing happened. And here's a wild guess: Nothing will happen. There will be no debate, and no real change.
Nevertheless, it would be better to ignore Netanyahu's verbiage and admit that he was speaking about real problems. It would also be wise to assume that "the Arabs" - that is, the Palestinian citizens of Israel - were artificially inserted into the equation to appease the extreme right and the Haredim. But in any event, shock at his statements won't help. It would be better to investigate the roots of the problem and present an alternative.
Here, then, is a proposal for how to take Netanyahu's statements seriously. First, just as Netanyahu purged Arabs and Haredim from his economic calculations, we should purge our debate of the proximate political causes of his remarks - Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and the fear that the protests will erupt anew this summer. To this list we should add the government's distress over the impending dissolution of the Tal Law, which exempts Haredim from army service, and the consequent need to come up with a creative new solution to preserve the coalition.
The Tal Law is a regrettable hodge-podge that scarcely reflects the courage and wisdom that guided the committee that drafted it. This committee, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, included several Haredi members who dared defy the community's political hacks and yeshiva heads. But it didn't manage to overcome either the pressure of Haredi politicians and the deals they concocted with the government, or the fanatic criticism by Haredi-bashers and the political appetites of secular politicians. As a result, the debate over creating an avenue of civilian service for Haredim was silenced. The law became marginal to the effort to draft the Haredim, when it could have provided a significant push.
Meanwhile, that portion of the public that serves in the army became increasingly resentful of young Haredim, whose weight in the general population is steadily increasing, and whose number somehow includes many working folk, thereby turning the rationale for their exemption - that "Torah is their profession" - into a lame excuse. But at the same time, the need to escape their economic distress led to the creation of Haredi study programs, professional training courses and jobs. This, too, could have portended change in the Haredim's place in this country.
But the leverage wasn't there and the hoped-for change never occurred, and now, even the limited achievements to date are on the brink of the abyss: The problem was sent to the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the Tal Law is unconstitutional. That's a pity. It could have instead relied, as Justice Asher Grunis did, on the Arbel-Rivlin ruling and returned responsibility for the problem to the legislative and executive branches.
The ruling, and the government's panic, inflamed the Haredi political world and allowed it to close ranks. What an irony: This occurred just when the Haredi public had never been so divided. It has no leadership nor any basis for consensus, and it suffers from poverty, degeneration and a poor image. In short, there's a golden opportunity for a new policy.
Such a policy ought to define the rights and obligations of every Israeli citizen in an egalitarian manner. It should study the army's needs and create civilian service for those who either aren't needed by the army or are incapable of serving effectively. It should bolster universal social services, subsidize selected yeshivas in the same way the Council for Higher Education does for universities, and abolish government stipends for yeshiva students. All this would deprive Haredi politicians of their kingmaker role and establish trust between the state and its citizens.
But Netanyahu isn't interested in that. Like a circus juggler, he prefers to toss colored balls in the air to make Israel's citizens forget that the agent responsible for the scandalous social gaps, the watered-down social services and the high cost of living is neither the Haredim nor the Arabs, but government policy. And as long as there is no one to devise an egalitarian civic policy, this juggler will continue to run the circus here.