(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Sunday’s ministerial votes to freeze the Western Wall compromise and approve a bill giving the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions have reverberated throughout Israel and the Jewish World.
But in the political sphere, one of the most interesting figures to watch has been Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.
These decisions can be seen as another move on the chessboard in a long-running game between Lapid and the haredi parties.
As someone who has led a secularist agenda and is the son of the late justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid – who was probably best-known as the most virulently anti-religious politician in Israel’s history – Lapid is the person who stands to gain the most from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s capitulation to the haredim.
A little background: After the 2013 election, Lapid insisted that Netanyahu keep the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties out of the coalition, and while finance minister, he pushed an agenda of forcing haredim to serve in the IDF and forcing their schools to teach the core curriculum – English, math and science – all while taunting the haredim from the Knesset podium. The haredim cried gevald for a year and a half until Netanyahu welcomed them back to the fold in 2015 after Yesh Atid lost half its seats in the Knesset in early elections.
Since then, Lapid has backed down from his secularist rhetoric and agenda, and tried to appeal to religious people, or at least the more modern ones.
He gave interviews to haredi newspapers in which he said he made mistakes. His party has held religion-themed events like challah baking for women.
Even on Monday, he lamented that the Kotel and conversion decisions disrespected religious Zionism and its rabbis.
Despite his attempts at friendliness, the haredim still see him as Public Enemy Number One – and he can capitalize on that.
Lapid had planned to go to the Western Wall on Monday morning – which would have been a spectacle, with lots of media coverage – but he backed out when he heard that haredim were planning to hold protests that would overshadow the visit. He presented his change of heart as the decision of a responsible adult, saying the haredim just wanted a fight, but he wanted Jewish unity.
“What happened to the unity of the Jewish people?” Lapid asked, even pointing out that the Western Wall was part of the Temple, which was destroyed because of baseless hatred between Jews. “Millions of Jews got the message yesterday that they’re not welcome at the Kotel.”
Lapid clearly knows that when the haredim are unpopular with the general public, his stock goes up. But do the haredim know that? Their parties, especially UTJ, don’t have to worry about voter numbers going down because they have a relatively captive audience that votes the way its rabbis tell it to. But when they take their agenda a step too far – when they riot over Shabbat desecrations or force their will onto the average Israeli – figures like Lapid, just as his father before him, gain in popularity.
Some haredi lawmakers have professed to know how this political equation works. This week, it seems they forgot.
Lapid gave the haredi parties some political advice on Monday morning, repeating that he had made a mistake in fighting them head-on when he was finance minister.
“I was in a place of power and I learned that you should do things through dialogue and not forcefully. If you want to make changes in people’s lives, do it around a round-table,” he told Army Radio.
“It doesn’t change my principles, but the method has to be different,” he continued. “The haredim are doing exactly what they accused me of: Now that they have the power, they don’t care about anyone else.”
The haredim are presenting these decisions on religion and state as victories, but in this game of chess, they might find themselves in checkmate if they’re not careful.