Israelis needed this Passover vacation. Within a few days their leaders established a government without Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, welcomed the president of the United States, engaged in a reconciliation of sorts with Turkey and got the house ready for Passover. Now we have an opportunity to pause and take stock. Which one of these high profile developments will yield results? It will probably be the exclusion of Haredi parties from the coalition. That dramatic event opened the greatest possibilities for real change in the lives of ordinary Israelis.
To be sure, Iran looms over us. The peace process remains stuck. The “restart” in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu changes the atmosphere as does the apparent, and apparently limited, reconciliation with Turkey. However, these are all components of a complex international situation over which our leaders exercise limited influence. Few expect dramatic improvements even if they turn out in ways generally favorable to Israel. On the other hand, removal of the Haredim from their position of power in the governing coalition offers an opportunity to reform a deeply dysfunctional aspect of Israeli governance.
Will it happen?
One of the main reasons reform might not be in the cards is the longstanding alliance between Likud and the Haredi parties. Netanyahu tried very hard to maintain that alliance throughout the coalition negotiations. But once Lapid’s and Bennett’s parties joined and insisted on excluding the Haredim, the numbers did not add up to a coalition that could include them.
But the average Israeli coalition government lasts about three years. Since today’s coalition members have to keep an eye out for future coalition partners, the Haredim will retain considerable leverage over its decisions.
Still, the Haredi political leadership is frightened and fighting mad. They are behaving in a manner that suggests that they see reforms as a real possibility. At the Knesset session announcing the new government the Haredi MKs outdid each other in furiously denouncing the coalition agreement. MK Gafni theatrically tore up papers he claimed were a copy of the accord. Before the session Shas party leaders threatened to “scrutinize every detail of all the emerging coalition’s actions with particular emphasis on ‘every shekel they transfer to the settlements.’” The Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman described the new coalition as a “malicious government,” employing a term Jewish tradition uses to describe the oppressive Roman administration of the ancient Land of Israel They called the coalition agreement “a serious blow to Torah students and all that is holy to the Jewish People.”
Two clauses in the coalition agreement raise red flags for the fervently Orthodox:
“The government will act to give every boy and girl in Israel broad education that will prepare him/her to deal with the challenges of a changing world and to live in dignity;”
“The government will act to enhance the equality with which the public carries the burden so that all groups in the country will share in the burden of service, whether through military service or civilian.”
Non-Israelis may have trouble recognizing the “threat” conveyed in these anodyne phrases. The first refers to the refusal of some Haredi schools to teach secular studies like math and English that prepare their students for the modern marketplace. The second refers to the longstanding practice of releasing Yeshiva students from military service in favor of their study of Torah. This impacts on tens of thousands of young men in Israel and is one of the major roadblocks to acceptance of the Haredim by the overburdened non-Haredi majority population.
If the coalition carries out necessary reforms that mainstream the Haredi community, integrate it into the contemporary economy and relieve it of its economic and social isolationism – an ultimately unsustainable state of affairs except through political extortion and exploitation of the rest of Israel’s hard-working society – it may be that Haredim will ultimately come to thank this government.
Several years ago the distinguished economist and head of the Taub Institute, Professor Dan Ben-David, debated a Haredi triumphalist who suggested that with their higher birth rate Haredim would take over the country. At some point. Ben-David responded: “What are you going to do with it, once you take it over?”
Ben-David pointed to the critical failure of Haredi leadership – shackled with its obsessive, ultimately self-defeating conservatism-for-its-own-sake – that made this government coalition possible. For all of our sakes, let’s hope that at least this dramatic development lives up to its potential.