The Politics of Coercion

The affair surrounding the relocation of ancient graves found beneath a planned emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon began with a bang and is now ending with a whimper. At first the government surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox parties' coercion, pledging to build the new emergency room at a different site than originally planned.

That decision, with its scandalously high cost to taxpayers, bodes ill for the general public, and underscored the fact that the Haredi minority is leading the entire country by the nose.

Had the government fulfilled its promise, the Barzilai affair would have been a watershed in ultra-Orthodox extortion, dwarfing precedents like the costly rerouting of the Trans-Israel Highway to circumvent another grave site. These achievements were the result of well-oiled Haredi lobbying machines in Israel and abroad, whose demands grow dramatically with every success.

On the pretext of protecting the sanctity of the dead, these shrewd operators have dragged Israel's government to submit to their every whim. Their demands are not necessarily rooted in halakha, but reflect the cynical manipulation and dismissiveness of the viewpoints and purse strings of the average citizen.

Over the past few years the general public, both secular and traditionalist, has given up fighting against coercion of this kind, even if yielding to it harms the public good. The same majority accepts the burden of working and paying taxes to finance the ultra-Orthodox education system (which enjoys generous state funding ), and remains silent over the fact that an uncompromising Orthodoxy lords over their private lives from birth, through marriage and divorce to death and burial.

The same happened in recent years every time ancient graves were discovered in the course of laying groundwork. Fatigue engendered indifference, and apathy brought capitulation.

With the Barzilai affair, however, the public had enough, and it struck back. Prominent physicians and public figures applied pressure on the prime minister, who ultimately decided not to follow the cabinet's decision.

Yesterday the grave relocation came and went peaceably, quietly even. It was clear proof that the sane core of secular and traditionalist Israelis can, if it only tries, close the floodgates of coercion and choose its own way of life.