Moshe Gafni - Michal Fattal - May 6, 2012
Degal Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni opened the Haredi election campaign last week with a visit to the town of Elad. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The ultra-Orthodox parties began their election campaign last week with an attempt to close ranks in the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) camp. Members of Knesset Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev of Degel Hatorah (the partner of the Hasidic party Agudat Yisrael in the United Torah Judaism faction ) visited the town of Elad in order to meet with a group of what can be called the "new ultra-Orthodox." They have no clout in any node of power, certainly not in the party that sets the tone in the Haredi public.

While the faction's newspaper Yated Neeman has not ceased to deride them, Gafni and Maklev realized somewhat belatedly that in the ultra-Orthodox camp there are many who haven't waited for Yair Lapid: They have already stopped studying Torah day and night, some of them have served in the army, some of them are studying for a degree and all of them work. And therefore their children are not accepted into the ultra-Orthodox educational institutions and they have to live in communities of their own. Gafni and Maklev are concerned about blocs of accumulated bitterness among this new genre of Haredim and are trying to make sure all of them vote for UTJ on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Elul, September 4.

However, the real troubles facing UTJ and Shas are not with these "nouveau Haredim," but rather with the traditional ones. Every Haredi election campaign begins and ends with the call "to unite and fight for our souls" against decrees imposed on the Torah world, more or less in those words. When the prime minister and the heads of other parties are visiting protest tents, decrying the inequity in military service, when every politician is offering his own version of "military service for everyone," when the agenda is yeshiva budgets, quotas for draft exemptions, participation in the labor force and discrimination against women - it is clear to the ultra-Orthodox that something has changed. There is hardly a single scenario in which the status of the Haredi parties in the new government will remain the same as it has been in the outgoing government. The most likely scenario is that in the next Knesset the ultra-Orthodox parties will be in the opposition.

Though mass conscription probably will not happen in the foreseeable future, the Haredi elected representatives are anxiously anticipating other detrimental changes in the budgets for yeshivas and in the political status of the Haredi parties. The independent ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpaha recently declared solemnly: "The town is burning."

In the meantime, the flames are not causing any changes in the method cultivated by generations of ultra-Orthodox wheeler-dealers: procrastination. The Tal law, which grants draft exemptions to Haredim, expires on July 31? Elections are to be held on September 4? It's best to wait; maybe something will happen by then to change the situation. After all, we will always have Iran and Gaza. In the meantime maybe it will be possible to rally against some evil figure who crops up.

Shas radio lampoons Lapid

Even if Yair Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman refrain from direct attacks on the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredi campaign will make use of the two of them to help unify the camp. The Shas spokesman has formulated a sarcastic attack on Lapid, which is supposed to depict him as the persecutor of the Jews, as someone who had some simple, mindless function during his military service, and as a man who finagled his way into academic studies. The Shas spokesman's press release, issued in response to Lapid's speech last week, was accorded far-reaching literary analysis on the Shas house radio station Kol Berama.

Shas will not make any new arrangement without the Lithuanian Haredim and they have never looked more passive. Their spiritual leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is on his deathbed and the number 2, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, who has already been burned in the past by contact with the Tal committee that formulated the law, is not expected to make any sharp turns at the age of 98. The Haredim, who are now waxing nostalgic for the Tal law, have never stood fully and explicitly behind it. The law - which provided huge budgets for encouraging Haredi men of conscription-age to join unique programs tailored to their needs in the IDF and civilian service - marks the absolute ideological limit beyond which the Lithuanians are not willing to go. They will not support, definitely not in public, an arrangement that will deny the right of even one ultra-Orthodox male to postpone his military service or obtain a complete exemption. It is doubtful that Shas will be able to deviate from this line.

Betrayed by Bibi

The ultra-Orthodox are frustrated and they are angry deep in their hearts at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having brought forward the elections without first reaching a temporary arrangement with them or burying the Tal law in some committee of experts. They think Netanyahu has betrayed them. However neither Shas not UTJ will say a bad word about Netanyahu in the next few months. They are thinking about the morning after the election. They still want Netanyahu to consider them as candidates for his coalition, even as excess baggage, the way Ehud Barak did in 1999.

At a time when there isn't a single ultra-Orthodox politician who is dealing seriously with the conscription issue, the spotlights are directed at Aryeh Deri. The question is what is he now cooking up with his pal Avigdor Lieberman. Deri, who will soon announce the formation of a political party, would like to engage only in ideological issues and not in a dirty war with Shas that is threatening to destroy his campaign.

Deri is the only Haredi politician who can speak today in praise of the Tal law and he will try with all his might to "bridge" between religious and secular. He will argue that the law has failed only because of politicians, including ultra-Orthodox politicians (among them those who replaced him in Shas, of course ). Deri believes he will be able to make it big both among the secular and among the ultra-Orthodox. He will explain that it is possible to conscript large masses of ultra-Orthodox men if the State of Israel only implements the Tal law, with slight changes, and invests more and more in "encouraging" enlistment. He is hoping to join the next government as the hero of the ultra-Orthodox who has saved the world of Torah from the impending decrees against it.

The elections are due to be held in the midst of the month of Elul, during which there are no exemptions or absences from the yeshivot. Apparently the Haredim will capitalize on the timing, turning the spiritual awakening and repentance rallies of Elul into election rallies, and staging political activities in the yeshivot. If permission for this is not granted, the "new Haredim" those who are not enrolled in yeshivot, can be counted on to do the work for the Haredi parties.