The Donkey's Burden

Tamir's mistake is that she did not adopt a populist stance. She commited the worst possible crime: She cooperated with Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and formed a single front against the teachers.

"S ecular teachers are not teachers, they are donkeys," declared Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in his weekly sermon Saturday night. They are donkeys because they do not teach the Torah, he explained to his audience.

But it seems not only the teachers are donkeys. Israel's entire secular population takes pains to ensure its children study mathematics, English, science, history and Torah, so they can become productive citizens living by their labor and paying high taxes - which are then divided among Yosef's followers. They also enlist in the army, are wounded and killed - in part, to protect Yosef's home. Whoever behaves this way must truly be an ass.

One of the teachers' demands is for fewer pupils per classroom. The public school system is home to the greatest overcrowding, which is less prevalent in the public-religious system and least felt in the Shas and United Torah Judaism religious schools. The reason for this stems from the division of public-religious and ultra-Orthodox education into dozens of different offshoots, each with its own school.

Thus, tens of millions of shekels are wasted on these small, inefficient schools, which are convenient for the sheep in Yosef's flock; they benefit daily from longer school days, lunches and transportation - all paid for by the state, which lacks the funds to offer the same conditions in the public school system. In other words, to offer the donkeys the same.

Another problem with the secular community is the lack of leadership and declining social values and feeling of solidarity. Last month, Ehud Barak's Labor camp fired poisonous arrows at Education Minister Yuli Tamir.

"You have caused Labor to lose its social welfare image and transformed us into the Treasury's pawns," charged Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Minister Ami Ayalon said: "I would have a very hard time [approving] warrants [ordering teachers back to work]." Party chair Barak offered lukewarm, two-faced support, which she could have done without.

After being attacked by fellow party members, Tamir was attacked by 40 MKs (12 of whom are members of the coalition), who signed a letter calling for her replacement because she "is blocking the teachers and lecturers from achieving their aims." They, the good guys, want to give - only she stands in their way. One of the signatories is Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who suddenly realized he was a social welfare kind of guy. But when he was chief of staff and defense minister, Mofaz refused to allow a single shekel from his bloated budget to be passed on to education and social welfare.

MK Ronit Tirosh was also quick to discuss "Tamir's failure" and demand her resignation. She forgot that when she was director general of the Education Ministry, the ministry's funding was cut repeatedly, and she did not budge from her seat.

The education budget is about to be raised by several billion shekels. Is this the time to resign? During Tirosh's tenure at the ministry, no reforms were carried out, there were no improvements or achievements. Only failure and decline: Look at the results of the recent exams. Is there no limit to chutzpa?

Tamir's mistake is that she did not adopt a populist stance, offering sweeping support to the demands posed by teachers union leader Ran Erez. In the beginning, she may not have been decisive, but later she rallied and commited the worst possible crime: She cooperated with Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and formed a single front against the teachers.

On the one hand, the three are willing to grant the teachers a substantial wage increase, and invest billions in the education system. On the other hand, they are unwilling to throw away the gains achieved through economic stability and growth.

If they were to surrender to Erez's unrealistic demands, the lecturers would be next, followed by the civil service. The nation's wage thresholds would be breached and the economy would deteriorate into chaos, dealing a serious blow to growth and employment.

Tamir stands alone, without a party behind her, without political power and without the backing of her ministry. The teachers accuse her and call her "traitor," and the parents are angry at her. "I don't eat, I don't sleep, I have taken this strike very personally," she tells those close to her.

In our cynical reality, she may pay a heavy political price for her stance. Because whoever tries to bring about change and maintain budgetary responsibility is bound to pay a heavy price. So, maybe, the biggest ass of them all is Yuli Tamir.