Finance Minister Yair Lapid's "we've finished taking orders from the haredim" speech in the Knesset will go down in the annals of Israel's relationship with its haredi population. Something like this had never happened before, and it is simply impossible to downplay its importance. The speech takes on added impact when one considers new arrangements that will hit haredi society, in effect smashing its entire economic structure – one that supports the existence of large families, many headed by unemployed fathers who spend their days studying Torah - and causing a fundamental and historic change in the educational system in the haredi community.
For anyone thinking that this might be hyperbole, it's worth taking a look at what was going on last week in the haredi media, which was flooded with in-depth discussions of Lapid's speech that ranged from the furious to the enthusiastic. After all, who is better at engaging in long-winded debates on complicated matters?
For those who missed it, the opening was relatively mild: "Hello to everyone. Yes, I listened to all of the [seven] no-confidence votes, and I will respond to the first three.
"Let's start with the remarks made by Mr. Porush," Lapid said, referring to a condemnatory speech by veteran United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush. "First of all, I am sorry for your anguish at not being part of the coalition; I understand that this is difficult and that you are going through a hard time."
But then he lashed out.
"Mr. Porush, weren't you part of the government that created the deficit? Were you on Mars? You have sat in every government for the last 30 years, and the deficit is written in your name. I'm the one who has to solve this deficit that you created. And you haven't been the cheapest members of the coalition, I'd like to remind you. It's not as though you sat down and said that out of concern for the nation of Israel, you'd decided to take less money from the state budget."
This was followed by the moment since dubbed by haredi commentators as the "Lapid and haredi catastrophe." As his speech went on it, the new finance minister grew more and more brutal:
"I won't ask you for feedback about what I'm saying... I don't take orders from you, the country has stopped taking orders from you. We were sick of it. That’s why you no longer control the Finance Committee."
And then: "I want to talk about your complaint that you are no longer in the coalition. There is such a thing in a democracy as a government without haredim. There is such a thing as the State of Israel without your name attached to it, such a thing as an Israeli government without your name attached to it."
The haredi public could not believe what was happening. The leading haredi voices crumbled under Lapid's attack. Even their most eloquent speaker, Rabbi Moshe Gafni, was left speechless.
Writing in the haredi newspaper "Mishpacha," in an article entitled "The consolidation of Lapid, the fall of UTJ and the silence of Shas", Shimon Breitkopf conceded that Lapid had "toyed with Moishe Cohen from Bnei Brak... and didn't hold back a single jab to the Knesset representatives of the haredi public." In fact, Breitkopf added, "he nailed Gafni to his seat."
Meanwhile, commentator Yaakov Rivlin wrote in the newspaper "Ba'kehila" that the United Torah Judaism MKs needed to convene "a special summit to dissect the lessons learned from the crushing defeat suffered by the confrontation with the finance minister."
The haredi media quoted, deliberated, and played selected clips from Lapid's speech and the responses from their Knesset representatives. Mischpacha editor Rabbi Moshe Gerlitz wrote: "It was very interesting on Monday to follow the first duel between Lapid and between the new opposition MKs from UTJ. We need to admit the truth, that in this verbal duel, Lapid won the upper hand. He unleashed brilliant rhetoric...rebutted the haredi MKs' remarks and dealt with them well."
Rabbi Gerlitz, one of the oldest and most esteemed figures in the haredi press, who normally possess a mild voice, predicted that something new has begun in the relationship between the haredim and the secular Israeli public. A few weeks ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he wrote in extreme language (which he later regretted) to express the depth of the haredi sense of panic over the creation of the new government: "This year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am suddenly afraid. A vague fear that slowly conquers the heart and cannot be remedied. I am trying to convince myself that this fear is illogical and merely a product of paranoia, a false fear. But my heart is unconvinced."
He cited the Jewish and Israeli post-Holocaust mantra "Never Again," explaining that he believed there was cause for concern that another Holocaust was indeed coming – only not in Germany, but in the Jewish state itself. "A gnat of fear is gnawing at my heart that [the Holocaust] will repeat itself. And it will repeat itself here in Israel. It will repeat itself and its victims will be us, the haredim."
In the same article, he pondered the elements of Israeli anti-haredi propaganda. "A well -planned propaganda campaign has been built on strategic, venomous and false claims, which will eventually lead to the delegitimization of the Jew, which will eventually result in his delivery to the crematorium of Auschwitz, without any pangs of conscience." Gerlitz cited a moment in the confrontation between Porush and Lapid, when the finance minister made a point of starting his address with "Mr. Porush" and not, God forbid, with "Rabbi Porush."
"The most interesting thing," Lapid told Porush, "is that that you had the courage to say that the central issue in the State of Israel is security - and you're worried about the diminishing percentage of draftees. You are worried? Well don't worry, the government will make sure that there are plenty of new recruits, straight from your own backyard."
Rabbi Gerlitz offered a gentle rebuke to his peers. "When Porush raised his fears about matters of security, Lapid did well to tell him to 'give your boys to the army'. That is an answer that goes straight to the point." And Gerlitz went even further: "How shall we answer our opponents who reject our point of view that the Torah saves and protects, when we refuse the draft despite the security situation?"
Lapid shocked the haredim when he broke an unwritten rule and brought up topics that no politician before had dared to address, such as the number of children in haredi families, and the question of who is obligated to support them.
"And about your question about the hunger of children, we will not let any child in
Israel starve," Lapid said. "But I want to remind you of one thing. The parties responsible for feeding children are called their parents. When you bring a child into this world it is a serious responsibility, and you cannot have children under the assumption that other people will provide for them. You have to understand that you must be the ones to support your child."
In response Gerlitz wrote: "How can you respond to the simple logic that the finance minister threw at the haredi MKs. Is the answer to say, 'No! The state must support them?' On the most basic level, there is no denying the humane simplicity of the assertion, even if it is just demagoguery."
It's no wonder, then, that the haredim have already begun to pull out the historical and mystical weapons in their arsenal. MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler of UTJ explained that this revolution is happening to the haredim, "mainly because of the requests from above that Israel repent. Therefore a difficult king akin to Haman has been thrust upon them, whose edicts and hardships will lead them to repentance."
That is what happens when conventional weapons don't work. The haredim deployed their usual big gun, which has long been effective in silencing Israeli politicians: that of the image of an attack on the sanctity of Israel. To their astonishment, this did not work either this time. As the haredim lambasted Lapid with assertions that he breaks the sanctity of Shabbat by posting Facebook updates, the finance minister told Gafni: "I make statements on Shabbat, because I don't keep Shabbat. I don't tell you what to do on Shabbat and you won't tell me what to do."
Rivlin wrote: "Gafni won't forget this until his final day in parliament. In 25 years of serving in the Knesset, he has met with a great deal of opposition and haredi-detractors who only the demons in the seventh level of hell can handle, and with every single one he has been able to discover their weakness." But he could not find Lapid's weakness.
The haredim had not had time to recover from the disaster of Lapid's speech before they suffered another equally damaging blow: the universal draft bill in the Knesset. They pretend that this, too, is not happening to them, but if the relevant clauses of the bill pass they would damage the classic haredi family even more than budget cuts.
And the list of cuts is long: Ending discounts for municipal taxes; cuts to special budgets for haredi schools (if they don't teach the Israeli core curriculum, which they won't), daycare programs and haredi elementary schools (Talmudei Torah); budget cuts for the Shas and Ashkenazi educational networks; budget cuts for the small yeshivas (parallel to the secular high schools); budget cuts to the seminaries (the post high school educational framework for girls); and more.
Many in the haredi community say the lesson they learned this week was that they should tone down the rhetoric, and not allow Lapid to unleash his polemic against them, as it that only wins him public support. Will they be able to restrain themselves?
With their hysterical headlines and comparisons to Nazi Germany, the haredi weekend papers suggest not. Translated by Amishai Gottlieb and Nathan Wise.