Aborted Yeshiva Cuts Show Israel Can’t Wish Its Minorities Away

In the wake of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s failed bid to slash yeshiva budgets, it's clear Israel will never win over the Haredim and Arabs by ignoring their desires.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Finance Minister Yair Lapid has suffered a defeat in his first confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox community. The budgets for the yeshivas and school networks of the Agudat Yisrael and Shas parties will not be cut, despite the fact that they don’t teach the core subjects. In a few weeks, the "draft equality" initiative to conscript Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces will vanish, and the momentum that brought Lapid and his political partner, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, to power will peter out. It's time to evaluate the situation.

It's easy to say the failure comes down to Lapid’s personal weaknesses – like superficiality and fear of confrontation. The minister didn’t comprehensively examine the legal situation before announcing the budget cuts to the Haredi education system. And treasury officials allowed him to take the leap without warning him of the legal pitfalls. His new promise that the law will be changed in six months and the Haredim will be forced to study the core curriculum sound like the cries of the kid who gets beaten up by the neighborhood bully and vows to get his big brother involved.

The problem, though, lies not only with Lapid's personality, but with the collapse of the political theory that said if the Haredim were excluded from the coalition, and the government hit them where it hurts, they would abandon their reclusive world and become industrious Israelis, motivated to serve in combat units and happy to pay their taxes. This illusion vanished in the same way as the previous government's hope that suppressing the political aspirations of the Arab community with the Nakba and loyalty laws would transform their sons and daughters into obedient subjects.

Fear that the Haredi and Arab minorities will grow increasingly powerful is the basis of the current government's policies, as it was in the previous government. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has simply tried to ignore their existences. Over the past four years, he hasn’t visited any Haredi communities or yeshivas and has only gone to an Arab city once. His out-of-office trips have been confined to IDF bases, border fence construction sites in the Negev Desert and cities where he hoped to rally electoral support for his Likud party. Netanyahu has preferred to visit people who like him, and his philosophy is summed up by his declaration that, with the exception of the Arabs and Haredim, we're doing fine.

Netanyahu has chosen to disconnect from reality, but reality insists on chasing after him. Meirav Arlosoroff reported in TheMarker Sunday that the National Economic Council warned the prime minister that Israel will undergo economic collapse in the “medium term" if it doesn’t integrate the Haredim and Arabs and improve their levels of education. They can no longer be removed from the official calculations to embellish the statistics and make Israel look like a Western start-up nation.

The main barrier to integration isn’t economic, but ideological and political: the Haredim and Arabs aren’t Zionists, and they are alienated from the symbols of the state. They don’t sing the "Hatikva" national anthem, don’t stand for the Memorial Day sirens and shy away from national figures like Theodore Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. They have different narratives, which they clung to when they were weak and few in number. As they get stronger, their fears are easing: Some 10,000 Arabs participated in a memorial service commemorating the Nakba on Independence Day, and 30,000 Haredim protested the draft Thursday night in Jerusalem.

The current governing coalition was established to strengthen the Zionist mainstream and suppress the minorities with a combination of legislation (the "Jewish Identity bill"), cuts in child stipends, military conscription and forced labor (national service). This will not work. The Haredim and Arabs will not adopt the "Jewish democratic nation" or march under a Star of David flag even if their stipends are cut. They will only deepen their isolationism, and according to estimates provided by the National Economic Council, drag us all into poverty along the way.

Integrating the minorities requires holding a dialogue with them and building a shared national ethos that all Israelis can accept. This is the ultimate mission for the prime minister, the finance minister and all the other ministers. But Netanyahu and Lapid are bound to the old slogans and their condescending attitudes toward the minorities. The failure to cut the yeshiva budgets must shake them out of their impervious slumber; otherwise, their policies will bring about Israel’s collapse from within.

Haredim in Jerusalem on March 13 protesting plans to draft them into the military.Credit: AP

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