Can Yair Lapid Dismantle the Haredi Welfare State Within a State?

The finance minister and his party are intent on punishing an entire community for the excesses of its leaders without offering positive incentives for integration.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For some reason, the announcement on the front page of the Haredi daily newspaper Hapeles, failed to draw much attention. It was written on the orders of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the 81-year-old leader of one of the wings of the "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodox community, and ruled that the recent military call-up orders for young men were part of a "decree of extermination and uprooting of the religion." Auerbach has ordered the "draftees" not to turn up at all, as the summons may soon lead to actual service – unlike in the past, when yeshiva students arrived at the Israel Defense Forces' induction centers just for formality's sake and were swiftly exempted.

Auerbach is estranged from many of his rabbinical colleagues and, to be sure, similar threats have been made in the past. Still, a senior rabbi is actually advocating widespread civil disobedience, and it looks like he won't be the only one.

For 65 years the uneasy relationship between mainstream Israeli society and the ultra-Orthodox minority was based on political understandings – these allowed the Haredi community to exist within the sovereign state largely on its own terms. As its power in the Knesset and coalition grew, that community was also largely subsidized by the state.

If you missed the acrid exchange on Tuesday between the new Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Haredi Knesset members, as Lapid made his maiden speech, take the opportunity to find it online. Lapid's triumphant tones along with his critics' strident denunciations give the firm impression that the old relationship is over – and for good. The details of Lapid's upcoming state budget give the same impression. Meanwhile, Lapid's deputy, Mickey Levy, went so far as to call the Haredim "parasites" and was forced to apologize – twice.

The requirement that all state-funded schools teach the national curriculum or lose their funding, the recalibrating of children's benefits so they no longer disproportionately favor large families and allow only families where both parents work to receive childcare subsidies and pay lower municipal rates are all rightly perceived as the dismantlement of the welfare state within a welfare state that the Haredi community has enjoyed for decades. In addition, the new national service law, which will cancel almost all Haredi army exemptions (for men at least), will be published next month.

All this, of course, is welcome if one believes the state should not discriminate in favor of a certain sector, awarding it benefits while its contribution to the country's defense and economy are minimal, at best. But while it seems that the victorious members of Yesh Atid are intent on punishing an entire community for the excesses of its leaders, there doesn't seem to be a plan to provide any positive incentives to integrate the community into the workforce.

Lapid has been awarded what could turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The election results put him and his new political ally Naftali Bennett in a position where they could force Benjamin Netanyahu to bid farewell to his eternal Haredi allies and form a government that clearly favors ending their special status. In addition, the huge national deficit provides the new finance minister with ample ammunition to fight for drastic cutbacks. These will affect all Israelis, but first and foremost those without any representation in the coalition.

The budget hasn't even been introduced to the Knesset but it's already clear that, politically, it's working for Lapid. His continues to enjoy soaring popularity in the polls, way beyond Yesh Atid's surprising gains in the elections. The underlying message from the Israeli public seems to be, we may all suffer from his budget, but as long as the hated Haredim suffer the most, we are okay with that.

But popularity fades, and as cutbacks begin to bite, Lapid will attract at least part of the blame. When this coalition's days come to an end and new elections are held, Netanyahu will do everything in his power to reunite with his old friends. Unlike Lapid, who has explicitly stated his goal to replace Netanyahu, the Haredim harbor no such aspirations. Of course, Netanyahu will not be prime minister forever but there is no guarantee that the Haredi parties will not be back in their customary position as power-brokers before long, whoever wins the next vote.

So what is Lapid doing to make this process irreversible? Sadly, nothing. The new national service law will take at least four years to implement, which is longer than this government still has to run. Meanwhile, there is no way the army or police can strong-arm tens of thousands of young men into enlisting. If other rabbis join Auerbach in ordering their supporters to stay home, it will take years of financial pressure to make them capitulate. In that time, a new government could come to power, change the law and reinstate the benefits and subsidies.

Lapid has another opportunity, which he has so far overlooked, in his mad rush to prove that Israelis "no longer take orders from you," as he crowed this week to his Haredi adversaries. Haredim and Israeli Arabs, two large minority groups, are woefully underrepresented in the workforce and are both ripe for change. The rabbis may want to keep the walls up between their community and the rest of society, while Arab politicians may want to prevent "normalization" with the state, but their publics yearn for normalcy. An entire generation of young Haredi and Israeli-Arab men and women want to come in from the cold and enjoy the prosperity that wider Israeli society enjoys – and they are prepared to work for it. Instead of antagonizing them, any sensible finance minister would be drafting a national plan to integrate them into the economy, with vocational training, incentives and tax-breaks for employers. Applying pressure or trying to make a point by cutting benefits should only be a small part of his plan.

There is no reason for Haredim in Israel not to work, just as ultra-Orthodox Jews in other countries do. The problem is that Israel's economy is currently built around them not doing so. If Lapid lacks the vision to change this or he is simply eager to give secular voters the atavistic satisfaction of seeing Haredim suffer, he may soon find that they have the patience required to outlast his term in office.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Lapid speaking in the Knesset, April 22, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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