For Israel's ultra-Orthodox, Happy Days Are Here Again

United Torah Judaism is back in the Garden of Eden from a two-year exile in the opposition, and boy, are the spoils large.

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After two terrible years in the opposition, the United Torah Judaism party is returning to the Garden of Eden, with a coalition agreement full of lavish achievements. The spoils were so large that Thursday’s lead headline in the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpacha was “The famine has ended.”

The headline captured widespread sentiment among the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public. The last two years have been hard both politically and economically, and the impact was felt in every Haredi household. But UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman prefers to talk about his party’s agreement with Likud in terms of cosmic justice.

In his view, the agreement’s 87 clauses encompass two kinds of justice. Those that affect the entire public – like higher child allowances, free dental care for children up to 14 and expanded home nursing care – he calls “social justice.”

“We can be proud of the fact that we’ve helped the general public,” he told Haaretz.

But the clauses that specifically benefit the Haredim are simply “justice.” Litzman sought to undo all the previous government’s reforms in this sphere, from reversing cuts in stipends for yeshiva students through gutting a new conscription law to abolishing the requirement that Haredi schools teach the core curriculum to obtain full government funding. But his goal went beyond merely satisfying the Haredi community’s needs.

For Litzman, “justice” means wiping out everything considered an achievement by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which was Likud’s senior coalition in the last government. That’s why he vowed during the campaign that under no circumstances would UTJ sit in a coalition with Lapid.

For Litzman, “justice” means wiping out everything considered an achievement by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.Credit: Amos Biderman

“I treat him exactly as he should be treated,” Litzman said. “You too, if you had a friend who beat you up and broke your arms and legs, would never be his friend again. He beat me, humiliated me, cut off my arms and legs.”

Litzman calls what’s happening now justice, but he likes his justice served cold.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UTJ’s leaders want to erase the memory of 2013-15. At Wednesday’s signing ceremony, both sides spoke nostalgically about 2009, the last time they established a coalition together.

But Netanyahu didn’t make do with merely turning the clock back. He gave UTJ almost everything: breaks for Haredi organizations that perpetrated fraud to get more government funding, eliminating the preference given to working parents for space in government day-care centers, legislation to circumvent the High Court of Justice ruling barring full-time yeshiva students from receiving welfare payments, legislation to restrict archaeological excavations at sites where human bones are found, a special committee to rethink the government’s policy of encouraging multistory burial at new cemeteries.

Anyone who hoped Haredi representatives would start speaking a new language will be disappointed. It’s the same old language of expanding the autonomy of Haredi institutions without reducing their state funding.

The only clause that opens even a small window for possible change is the following: “Given the importance the government attributes to encouraging employment and the importance of increasing the Haredi sector’s integration into the job market, a task force to encourage the employment of Haredim will be established in the Economy Ministry, which will work to monitor, encourage and assist the Haredi population’s integration into full-time, quality jobs.”

But history has a way of repeating itself, and in the past, major Haredi achievements – like a law that vastly increased child allowances for large families – have boomeranged, sparking so much public anger that the next government ultimately revoked them. UTJ’s greatest success in the current agreement, gutting the law to draft Haredim into the army, could similarly prove to be a bridge too far.

The law, enacted in 2014, was already a huge Haredi achievement. It ensured that few yeshiva students from the core Haredi community would actually be drafted, while simultaneously allowing the entire Haredi leadership to vehemently oppose it because of a clause stating that if the community as a whole didn’t meet its draft quotas, Haredi draft-dodgers would be jailed just like secular draft-dodgers are.

UTJ and Likud had always planned to eliminate this criminal sanction, but the coalition agreement does something else as well: It requires the defense ministry to formulate an amendment within five months replacing the draft quotas set in the original law with new ones to be set by the defense minister. This would enable the minister to lower the quotas to the point that even the law’s financial sanctions would never be imposed.

This move has both legal and political implications. First, petitions against the amendment will certainly be filed in the High Court of Justice. Second, history is once again liable to repeat itself: The amendment will give Lapid, now in opposition, new ammunition with which to paint himself as the champion of “equality in bearing the burden” and argue that voters must support him if they want such equality to become reality.

Commentator Yaakov Rivlin of the Haredi paper Bakehila thus refused to join the general euphoria over the coalition agreement. In his column Thursday, he warned that even some coalition parties wouldn’t be able to live with this amendment.

Conscripting the Haredim, he wrote, is the issue “over which the second Netanyahu government fell, over which the third Netanyahu government was established without the Haredim, and which will determine the fate of his fourth government.” Might it not be Lapid who, after the next election, will be speaking of a “correction”? Might UTJ not be ensuring that the next government will also be devoid of Haredim?

Litzman is certain the answer is no. “The public is already sick of persecuting the Haredim,” he told Haaretz. “That was proven in this election; even Yair Lapid went down. With all due respect, the public wants social welfare; the public wants to live better; it wants housing; and it doesn’t want to persecute the Haredim. It’s over. What’s done is done.”

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