Lapid at Knesset 370.
(photo credit: Uriel Sinai/Reuters)
On Monday, April 22, Finance Minister Yair Lapid delivered his maiden speech in the Knesset plenum, answering three of the six motions of no-confidence in the government presented by the Opposition. The speech turned into a direct confrontation between himself and the Ashkenazi haredi MKs – in particular MKs Meir Porush, Moshe Gafni and Yisrael Eichler.
I must admit that I was impressed by Lapid’s speech. First, there was the fact that Lapid, who is used to speaking with a teleprompter, had to do without this technological gadget, and did very well, speaking clearly and coherently, without letting the haredi MKs, who were constantly heckling him, budge him from his narrative. Furthermore, even though what he said was extremely provocative (from a haredi point of view), his language remained polite, and his tone calm and non-tempestuous, though every once in a while his intonation was surprisingly similar to that of his father, Tommy Lapid, who as we may recall was frequently impolite and tempestuous.
Secondly, Lapid expressed in the clearest and most direct form several basic principles most secular Israelis firmly believe in but only rarely express for fear of upsetting the haredim. The first is the principle that every person is responsible for providing for the children he brings to the world – or at least should do his best to provide for them, and not expect the state to do so. The issue came up when MK Meir Porush accused Lapid of “starving children” due to his proposal to drastically cut social security child support.
I was raised on the principle that it is the duty of parents to provide for their children. Where I came from, turning into a financial burden on the state was considered something to be ashamed of, and to be avoided at any cost. Inter alia, this means one should do one’s utmost not to bring more children into the world than one can provide for both in material and educational terms.
In the haredi world (at least in Israel) this principle is scorned. The number of children is a function of the fertility of their parents, and avoiding gainful employment for the purpose of religious studies (with or without a wink), is the bon ton. I remember feeling truly sorry for a haredi colleague in the Knesset Research and Information Center, who told me that none of his neighbors knew what he was doing for a living, because if they found out he would have difficulties finding decent matches for his children.
Another principle that Lapid reiterated (in response to an interruption by MK Gafni) was that it was none of the haredi MKs’ business to tell him whether it is OK to write Facebook posts on Saturday.
There is no earthly reason why a secular Jew in Israel, including a finance minister, should have to apologize for not preserving the Sabbath, any more than a religious Jew should have to apologize for preserving the Sabbath.
Israel is not a state governed by halacha, Jewish law, it is a Jewish state in that it is the state of all the Jews who wish to live in it, and the only restriction on how they live is the law of the land, as legislated by the Knesset – not halacha. Nevertheless, no one stops people from living according to halacha, as long as this is not in breach of the law of the land – something that unfortunately many haredim in Israel have difficulty accepting.
Most observers agreed that in the Knesset debate on April 22 Lapid won a knockout victory over the Ashkenazi haredim, who should have known better than to get involved in this superfluous verbal battle (which also caused Lapid to decide henceforth to deliver important economic speeches outside the Knesset, without constant interruptions by the haredi MKs).
However, the main problem was the haredi reaction.
During the debate MK Meir Porush accused Lapid of hating the haredim, while part of the haredi media accused him of anti-Semitism. MK Eli Yishai went so far as to say that if a politician in Europe dared to say about the Jews what the leaders of Yesh Atid say about the haredim, Israel would be up in arms to protest against the abominable manifestation of anti-Semitism.
This is pure demagoguery. If the Jewish citizens in any European country dared act the way the haredim act in Israel – i.e. refuse on principle, and en masse, to uphold obligations shared by every citizen or to go out and work, and at the same time demand full social security benefits – the politicians in that country would be perfectly justified to use harsh language to describe the phenomenon. But the Jewish citizens of other states do not act in this manner – not even the haredim.
The problem really is that even though most of the haredim participate in Israel’s democracy, they do not really accept the basic principles on which it is based. Back in the mid 1980s, MK Menachem Porush – father of Meir Porush – fought against the introduction of provisions into Israeli law that prevent lists that reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state running in the elections, because he feared that the fact that the haredi parties openly advocate Israel turning into a halachic state would be interpreted to mean that they reject Israel as a democratic state.
The provision nevertheless became law, and the lenient approach of the High Court of Justice on the issue has enabled the haredi parties (and the Arab parties, for that matter) to get away with some of their ideological positions, as long as they do not take concrete action to realize them.
Nevertheless, the situation we confront today is a direct consequence of this anomaly, which for too many years has been swept under the carpet. The problem is not hatred of the haredim, but the unwillingness of the public Yair Lapid represents to continue to let them make a mockery of some of the basic obligations of citizens toward the state of which they are citizens. Put in other words, the social contract between the democratic state and its citizens is not something that any major population group can pooh-pooh.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.