The Great Defeat of Secularism

Over and over, secular citizens have suffered heavy, painful blows, and over and over no one stepped up to represent them.

Ahead of the elections Shas has released a booklet describing its achievements or, more precisely, those of the ultra-Orthodox community in the 17th Knesset. The booklet is yet further proof that the outgoing Knesset was especially bad for the secular community. Over and over, secular citizens suffered heavy, painful blows, and over and over no one stepped up to represent them. It is not just a matter of wars of religion, but more of a defeat without even putting up a fight.

These are the main issues where the secular community has lost:

b The Tal Law, which permits yeshiva (religious seminary) students to put off mandatory army service, was approved for extension to the maximum period of five years. This, despite its absolute failure during the first five years of its existence: The number of yeshiva students who entered the work force is minimal, and the number of those evading the draft has peaked at 14 percent of eligible Haredi men.

b Notwithstanding the worseningd iscrimination, the state of Israel is paying for the studies of 100,000 yeshiva students aged 18 and up, who are not serving in the army. Last week the government decided to invest a further NIS 169 million in yeshivas, in order to ensure regular stipends, even though the national budget has yet to be approved and without consideration for the economic crisis.

b The Ministry of Religious Affairs has risen from the ashes. In its reincarnated state it is called the Ministry for Religious Services. Shas happily reports that "we have added about NIS 50 million for the construction and repair of 79 synagogues. We have allocated NIS 106 million for constructing 36 mikvot [ritual bathhouses] and for repairing 300 others." Shas has already made it clear that it aspires to return to its past glory, to the days when the ministry controlled budgets for religious affairs. By the way, during those wondrous years the ministry was known for corruption, false statements and grants to fictitious institutions.

b For the first time Israel has passed a law which states that the government will fund "small yeshivas" (yeshivas for high school-aged students), even though they do not include in their curriculum the core program required by law. This means that one out of every four Jewish pupils will lack basic skills for entering the work force. The economy of Israel will need to bear a growing burden of funding the ultra-Orthodox and will regress into that of a developing country.

b The process of gradually increasing the stipends for children was the result of a coalition agreement with Shas in 2006. The result has been that for every child, from the fourth onward, more than twice the amount is offered than for the first or second child. The more funding, the greater the appetite, and now Shas is once again demanding to raise the stipends for large families. It should be noted that the cut in child stipends brought about the desired results, in the form of ultra-Orthodox entering the work force and a drop in poverty levels in Haredi communities within a few short years. Now they are trying to bring the country back to the days when stipends for children were, in essence, funding for the ultra-Orthodox.

It is hard to find a party in the coalition that has not betrayed the secular community. The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima), was at the forefront of the Tal law. Labor collaborated in religious legislation. Yisrael Beiteinu tried to pass a law recognizing alternative marriage, but only when it sat in the opposition and had no chance to pass it. Likud too, it should be noted, did not really fight or risk its good ties with the Haredim in order to safeguard secular citizens.

The 17th Knesset has been hostile to the secular community, and a significant portion of the gains made during the Sharon-Shinui government were eroded. The 18th Knesset will probably be even worse. No party, including Meretz, purports to represent the secular citizenry. There is a good chance that Shas will increase its strength in parliament. It seems that secular citizens are going back to being the donkeys on whose backs ride Haredi society, and its representatives don't really seem to care.