Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias.
Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The Shas party's newspaper Yom Leyom recently featured a front-page story that the party's "next battle" was an "NIS 800 monthly mortgage reimbursement for every young couple." That would be a nice gift for the young pair, amounting to NIS 9,600 annually for 20 years. And it prompts a question about the generosity washing over the Housing and Construction Ministry, headed by Ariel Atias of Shas.

Yom Leyom and other ultra-Orthodox newspapers explained it in detail. The benefits will only be paid in the country's national priority areas. Atias plans to build many thousands of apartments for Haredim in outlying areas such as Harish in the north and Kasif in the Negev, as well as in Lod, Tiberias and Safed. In all these places, apartment prices will be particularly low because of the low cost of land and the state's involvement in development costs. Atias, however, also wants to fund mortgage reimbursement payments for young voters of Shas and United Torah Judaism. If this is the case, the move means additional income supplements to young married yeshiva students, which would provide them with assistance for not working.

The Sharon-Netanyahu-Shinui coalition government that followed the 2003 elections cut child allowances to encourage these yeshiva students to enter the workforce. And the High Court of Justice recently invalidated income assistance to these students beginning next year, which could greatly encourage them to seek work. Atias' "half-price apartment" plan, however, is the new incarnation of these benefits. So it turns out the benefits to married yeshiva students haven't died. They have simply been replaced. Meanwhile, Shas is still pressing for an increase in child allowances and for a law that would continue income assistance to married yeshiva students.

Also, in an effort to mobilize public pressure for a mortgage finance plan, Shas sponsored a private member's bill to which about 30 Knesset members, many from secular parties including Labor, Kadima, Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu, have signed on. In the future, MKs should look more carefully at what they are endorsing.

Atias is furthering a glorious tradition that embraces the idea that the job of Haredi party hacks is to extract as many resources from the Zionist state as possible to fund a way of life that avoids education, army service and employment. Senior economists including Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer say the current situation cannot continue because it will bring down Israel's economy. But what does Shas care? If Israel becomes a third-world country, there will be many more poor people here, meaning Shas will attract many more voters.

The government is making a Sisyphean effort to draft yeshiva students or have them do national service, and to get them to enter the job market. It has made this a national priority. This process costs a lot of money, but the public is gritting its teeth and reconciling to the cost. Atias is trying to scuttle this effort, which is further proof that to carry out reforms for integrating the ultra-Orthodox into Israel's society and economy, it needs a government without Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The public is longing for a civil revolution - a halt to education funding without a core curriculum, limitations on draft exemptions and the number of yeshiva students receiving state funds, laws allowing every citizen to get married in Israel, an easing of conversion procedures and a separation of religion and politics. If Netanyahu sets up such a government, he will become one of the most important prime ministers in Israel's history. If not, it looks like someone else will do it.

 

The writer is vice president of research and information at the organization Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.