Lapid, Bennett Campaign to 'Share the Burden' Emboldening Haredi Hardliners

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Readers of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman, and in its wake, the entire Haredi press, have been getting generous daily exhortations toward religious extremism for some weeks now. "The army draft decree is comparable to a time when Jews are forced to give up their religion, and at such a time, one must be willing to die even over [a religious principle as seemingly insignificant as] a shoelace. Therefore, there is no room for any compromise or concessions on religious principles," stated the headline of last Friday's edition, which quoted Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, dean of the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

In the article itself, Povarsky is quoted as saying: "These are times of trouble for the Jewish people. We face a terrible decree imposed by the wicked ones of Israel, the likes of which we have never seen, a decree against the study of Torah. In the malice of their hearts, they wish to uproot everything."

The editorial lays out the newspaper's hard line. "There is no room for compromise, no room for even minimal harm to those who study Torah, of any age, any situation and particularly the young generation ...."

This well-timed campaign conducted via party newspapers by the leaders of the Eda Haredit - the umbrella group of the more extreme factions in the ultra-Orthodox community - is the worst possible scenario for the future integration of young Haredim into the army, higher education and the labor market.

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, chairmen of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, respectively, have refused to join the government unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepts their stance and pushes through legislating mandating Haredi conscription. But they are achieving the opposite of what they intended: The Haredim are becoming more extreme in their positions, more insular and less willing to consider a compromise.

Tacit cooperation

The past few years have seen a slow trend of Haredi integration into the army, higher education and the workplace. Figures within the ultra-Orthodox community, acting in consultation with rabbis, have begun the delicate, sensitive process of establishing academic institutions, vocational training and channels for national service that are appropriate for its members.

Even members of the community recognize that poverty and a reliance on state handouts is no longer a viable option for the community as a whole. They are searching for a new way, but are trying to adopt it in a slow, safe manner, to avoid any shocks that might cause Haredim who do work to lose their faith and change their way of life.

Many new schools in the community teach the so-called core subjects and more, while at some yeshivas, students can study for the state matriculation examinations. It is true that this change is slow, but something is happening on the ground.

None of this could happen without the cooperation of community figures and the (mostly tacit ) consent of the rabbis. But to achieve this cooperation, it must happen in small, discrete steps, without 8 P.M. press conferences or sensationalist headlines.

Granted, the community's activists and politicians are not exactly helping; they usually voice extremist positions for external consumption, in order to obtain the imprimatur of the Haredi leadership. But even they recognize that change is coming. Their voters have already turned their backs on the old ways.

But this does not concern Lapid and Bennett, who did not come all this way in order to achieve genuine solutions. Just as with the "old politics" they purport to reject, they came in order to pose for the cameras and flash victory smiles. We threw the Haredim out of the coalition. We screwed them.

Reaping political capital

There are countless issues that require serious attention: education, employment, neglect of the geographic and socioeconomic periphery, public-sector inefficiency, the defense budget, the settlements, the peace process and heaven knows what else. But none of that interests Lapid and Bennett, the odd couple of Israeli politics. For some reason they believe that "sharing the national burden" is the most crucial issue in the country, the one on which Israel's very future rides.

They are right to say this is an extremely important issue. Of course it's necessary to rectify decades of discrimination and enable the Haredim to realize their full potential to contribute to Israel's society and economy. But all the mistakes of the last 60 years cannot be solved by force, sanctions or a single coalition fiat.

Lapid and Bennett are well aware of this, and both have said similar things in the past. So why do they now insist on imposing their unilateral process for drafting Haredi men on Netanyahu? Because more than they want to be agents of change, they want to reap political capital, assuage the public anger directed at the Haredim and sweep the rest of Israel's weighty problems under the rug. They are not leaders. They are led by the people and the media, which are obsessed with the Haredi community, and are neglecting problems that are less sexy, less of a ratings draw.

If Lapid and Bennett were serious about change, they would spend a few moments leafing through Yated Neeman, and realize immediately that they are on the wrong track. The radicalization of the Haredim as a result of their conduct is a catastrophe that jeopardizes years of hard-won accomplishments.

The Haredi extremists, the ones fighting against the new service and training tracks, are rejoicing. An outsider, the modern-day equivalent of the Polish landowner from the bad old days, has succeeded in getting the entire community to support their radical positions. They have already won.

Haredi technology conference. Credit: Emil Salman

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