Dan Perry
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble"

Time to shake up the religious status quo

Shas leader Arye Deri (Flash90)

The messy results of last week’s election do not easily enable a move toward peace with the Palestinians; the Israeli public is too complacent for that. But they do offer the possibility of a shakeup in the other great problem facing the country, which is religious-secular relations.

Here’s the situation: Israel is enabling the Haredim, a large and growing minority, to deny their young people a basic education in math, science and English, rendering masses of future Israelis unemployable in a modern economy. It allows this huge population to avoid the military in a way that creates indefensible inequality in a priceless asset called personal security. It allows this group, together with their cohort-in-coercion from the national-religious camp, to interfere in the lives of everyone else in ways that they would never dare attempt in Brooklyn or Belgium.

Modern Israelis are confronted with the dilemma of how liberal to be with the illiberal (not unlike the question facing Europe with some Muslim immigrant groups). They are asked to respect and financially support the proliferation of a culture that very often puts women in the back seat, discourages openness to the world, suppresses free discourse, tolerates racism, reveres religious fanatics and clings obsessively to the past.

It is clear that this situation will drag Israel into poverty and backwardness, and cause economic harm to the religious themselves, first and foremost. Yet saying so out loud is frowned upon. In a country where no one’s feelings are generally spared, religious feelings are jealously guarded. In Israel’s twisted version of political correctness, the feelings of the secular are worth considerably less.

There is nothing “anti-Semitic” in wanting to shake this up. The religious propagandists’ disgraceful use of this term is a disservice to the memory of those who suffered real anti-Semitism. The acceptance of this canard is one of many ways in which nonsense has come to dominate an increasingly infantile Israeli political discourse.

Want more examples?

  • It is not true that “politicians are all the same.” There may be no good guys. But there certainly are bad guys. Benny Gantz will probably not sell his soul to be prime minister — so they call him a rookie. Netanyahu, meanwhile, absolutely will. Not all politicians are corrupt, certainly not at a felony level. This type of cynicism launders genuine evil.
  • It is not true that “everybody lies.” Sure, most people have spoken untruth. Some lies are essential. But most are not, and only a few people lie as a matter of course, as a system, as basic instinct. Saying that everyone lies is misleading but effective, and it launders the ones whose pants are on fire.
  • It is not true that “both sides built settlements.” Yes, the left began this calamity in the Jordan Valley and in its weakness allowed some settlement in Samaria and near Hebron as well. But the left was also always interested in a “territorial compromise” and for the past four decades has generally been the side trying to block more settlement. The right is the entity responsible for the suicidal and immoral bi-national nightmare that befouls the landscape.
  • It is not true that “Israel was dragged into a pointless election campaign.” Sure, it could have been avoided. But no, there is nothing wrong with elections. They cost money but a terrible government costs more. The second round of Election 2019 was an opportunity to correct a mistake and it was partly successful. If a third will prove necessary for full success, bring it on.

And to the issue at hand, the Haredim. It is misleading to say that “everybody sits with them” and that “the left will give them everything as well.” This trope clouds the picture and obscures the essence.

Yes, Haredi parties have participated in leftist coalitions also and have received their payoffs there. But no, not to the same degree and not in the same way. The Haredim have never backed the left if the left did not already have a blocking majority – meaning they will join the left only when they have no alternative. The right is far more vulnerable to extortion because the right has no chance of being in power without them. The right is in the pocket of the Haredim. So their hand is in your pocket.

That is probably the true explanation for Avigdor Lieberman’s apparent betrayal of Benjamin Netanyahu. People say Lieberman has come to hate Netanyahu. That’s easy to believe for obvious reasons, but I don’t really buy it. I do buy that Lieberman hates seeing his country moving toward being a Jewish version of Iran. It’s credible.

If the right wing, in its stupidity, has made peace impossible for now, then that issue is no longer as acute as it was. The other main issue is religion and state, and on this issue the place of Lieberman and his supporters very clearly should not be with the right. They are overwhelmingly secular, proudly rationalist, and often victims of the monopolistic religious authorities’ cruel hassling of those not deemed sufficiently Jewish to, say, be married.

If Gantz and Lieberman stick to their guns on religious issues, and the Likud does not dump Netanyahu, and Lieberman backs off his veto of collaboration with the Arab parties even a little, the Haredim will have no choice but to abandon the right. That’s what occurred with Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999.

Would a deal with the Haredim necessarily be shameful compromise? Not at all. It can constitute progress. Here’s a proposed outline:

  • Civil marriage will be allowed for those who want it.
  • Transport will be allowed on Shabbat in secular areas.
  • Commerce will be allowed on Shabbat in secular areas.
  • The military draft law will be passed in its current form. Everyone can claim victory there, because the supposed dispute earlier this year was largely a fiction. Few Haredim will be drafted under its tortured formulas, and while that is annoying the last thing the army needs is more fanatics making a fuss about the presence of a woman soldier in their vicinity.
  • A professional commission will be established to study the issue of a national service for all who are not drafted, including Haredim and Arab Israeli citizens.
  • A professional commission will be established to study the issue of a core curriculum in all schools with state funding. It may be possible to start demanding it right away, at least in some cases.
  • Extortionate state funding of the religious seminaries would continue for now.  It is key to achieving the above. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch.

Part of the issue here is that not all Haredim are the same. The Ashkenazi wing is one thing; Shas is a different story. Its support comes from Sephardim who are disenfranchised in some cases, right wing in most cases, friendly toward religion in all cases but quite often not really Haredim at all. There is potential for discussion there.

The above deal would be temporary. It could enable a government that actually makes progress on some issues. And it would be wildly popular among the secular (and traditional) majority.

Of course, in a perfect world there would be generous subsidies for those who abandon the Haredi fold as well. But there is no perfection in this world. We live and breathe the here and now, and shuffle off this mortal coil.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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