Now Out of the Government, Israel's ultra-Orthodox Parties Fumble for a Plan

A stunned ultra-Orthodox community recovers from Yair Lapid's tirade this week in the Knesset and tries to fight back against his proposed budget cuts.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset are in shock. They had become accustomed to pointing to Yair Lapid to prove the existence of Haredi hatred. Before he announced his entry into politics, Lapid had been providing grist for the mills of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members. “We survived Tommy, we’ll survive Yair,” Haredi lawmaker Israel Eichler used to boast, referring to Lapid’s late father.

But nothing in the past year, in which Lapid catapulted to the forefront of Israeli politics, could have prepared the Haredim for the attack that burst forth this week from Lapid, the new finance minister, at the Knesset podium.

MKs like Eichler and Moshe Gafni, both of the United Torah Judaism party and whom the Haredi media has lauded for years as gifted polemicists, were struck dumb by Lapid’s tirade.

Responding to proposals for a no-confidence vote in the government, including one by United Torah Judaism, Lapid, interrupted repeatedly from the floor, said the new government was not in their employ, that parents had to financially support their own children and that the young men from “their backyard” would soon be drafted. When Gafni protested that Lapid had posted remarks on his Facebook page on the Sabbath, Lapid responded, “I am not a Sabbath observer.” It’s hard to remember when a senior minister, a potential prime minister, came out with such strictly secular pronouncements.

The benefit to Lapid was clear. The next day, public discussion about the effects of his new budget on the poor and the middle class was pushed aside to focus on the shock and awe engendered over the conflict with the Haredim.

There's no one in the Haredi community who will deny that their MKs were thrown off balance by the attack, including Haredi pundits and others like MK Aryeh Deri (Shas), who accused his Ashkenazi colleagues of playing into Lapid’s hands.

Haredi political wheelers and dealers are angry at their representatives and are demanding to see some action. Gafni, who got his own a cold shower from his spiritual patrons, understood that against the current coalition, a quick tongue isn't enough.

In the latter half of the week, it got even worse for the Haredim when a draft of the Economic Arrangement Law was presented, introducing a deep, painful bite out of their funding. The Haredi press, which weeks ago was already using terms like "anti-Semitism" to describe the looming budget cuts, had to find a whole new linguistic arsenal. The well-respected ultra-Orthodox weekly Bakehilah reported the main points of Lapid’s budget cuts under a huge headline: “Death by starvation.”

Lapid chose to discuss his economic plan in terms of a culture war, and one of the unknowns is what that will do to the thousands of ultra-Orthodox who had already set out to study, work and serve, when Lapid was still a journalist.

“When the other side puts on the war paint, you can’t smoke a peace pipe,” said Hanoch Verdiger, leader of a Haredi reformist movement that financially and politically supports ultra-Orthodox schools that prepare students for matriculation. From that perspective, Lapid is providing a great service to the conservatives in the Haredi community, and that's even before we consider the damage that will be done to ultra-Orthodox schools that do teach the core subjects.

The draft of the Economic Arrangements Law, which may cut NIS 2,000–3,000 from the monthly income of the average ultra-Orthodox family, has now become the test of Shas and United Torah Judaism. Can they manage, now that they're in the opposition, to strike down clauses that target their voters?

The average Haredi citizens have gotten used to being passive spectators, depending on the directors of their institutions and their political activists to protect their interests. These leaders in turn trust their MKs and the prime minister, who recently led MK Eli Yishai (Shas) to understand that he and his colleagues will be back in the government any minute now.

If the ultra-Orthodox fail to stop the proposed funding cut, they will stand at a historic crossroad. Either they will quickly abandon the model of the society of learners, joining the labor market and inculcating the core curriculum in their schools, or they will cut themselves off from the state, depending more and more on handouts from North America and Europe.

The Hasidic newspaper Hamodia, two weeks ago outlined this imaginary ultra-Orthodox autonomous entity.

“By wise management we will fund 100 percent of all the educational institutions, the yeshiva students will be the honored members of the community, they will receive respectable stipends and we will make sure there is housing at sane prices," it wrote.

That's just one testimony to the helplessness of the ultra-Orthodox leadership in the face of the changing reality.

In light of Lapid’s declarations, the rabbis are also in a trap: On one hand they feel obligated to call on their flocks to protect themselves. On the other, they are hesitant to call for an all-out transformation in their relationship to the state. The rabbis are not willing to speak the new language of the Lapid age, and apparently they do not know how.

Ten days ago the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudat Yisrael party issued a statement to its followers to “stand strong in the face of any foreign spirit and do not stray one iota from what our rabbis have instructed us.” The council issued a series of noes: No to the core curriculum, no to matriculation, no to academic degrees (but yes to non-academic training for a trade).

One rabbi, who knows the ultra-Orthodox world well, lamented its leadership crisis yesterday and the inability of the “great sages of the generation” to form a strategy and prepare for the future. He said he believes that there is no ultra-Orthodox leader today of the stature of the late Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who was able to see two steps ahead and set the direction of the ultra-Orthodox society.

Yair Lapid speaking in the Knesset, April 22, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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