ULTRA-ORTHODOX JEWS dance as they protest outside the Knesset last month..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As I’m writing this column on Saturday morning, I have no way of knowing if Ya’acov Litzman has followed through on his threat to resign as health minister due to Jewish workers laboring this Shabbat on vital Israel Railways maintenance work. No doubt, in Litzman’s ideal world this column, too, would not be written until three stars have made an appearance in the sky later this evening but, thankfully, the health minister’s long reach doesn’t quite make it to my apartment in Mevaseret Zion.
But that’s not strictly accurate. Litzman’s influence does intrude in all matters of my daily life. Absurdly, in twenty-first-century Israel, the followers of a group of fundamentalist rabbis have the power to decide who my children can marry if they want to be legally wed in Israel, deny me the option of using public transport on Shabbat, and ensure that a goodly proportion of the taxes I pay goes on maintaining their parasitic lifestyle.
Interestingly, not all of Litzman’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) colleagues in the Knesset support his brinkmanship over the issue of railway maintenance work on Shabbat.
Not, God forbid, because they are in favor of Jews working on Shabbat, but because they have bigger fish to fry. Shas leader Arye Deri and United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni (who belongs to the Lithuanian faction of the UTJ, not Litzman’s hassidic sector) realize that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is the most haredi-friendly government in Israel’s history.
Rather than risk destabilizing the government, Deri and Gafni want to concentrate on strengthening the grip of the religious on the rest of country, a tactic which seems to be working. The ministerial committee on legislation, for example, was scheduled to discuss on Sunday a proposal submitted by Netanyahu, due to haredi pressure, which would overturn the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows Tel Aviv and other municipalities to introduce bylaws permitting the opening of convenience stores on Shabbat.
And of course, bubbling in the background is the High Court of Justice’s decision to strike down the government’s IDF draft exemption legislation, which spared haredi men from conscription in Israel’s army alongside their secular counterparts.
The court ruled that such legislation was discriminatory and gave the government a year to pass a new law or default to a situation in which all 18-year-old Israeli Jewish males are conscripted into the army.
Such a sharing of Israel’s security burden is anathema to the haredi world, happy for Israel’s secular and national-religious youngsters to risk their lives while they carry on their non-productive lives in the yeshiva study halls, paid for by the Israeli taxpayer. Deri and Gafni know their chances of maintaining such a patently unfair state of affairs can best be assured by remaining in Netanyahu’s coalition rather than destabilizing it over the less critical issue of railway maintenance on Shabbat.
Which makes Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s recent comment agreeing with Netanyahu’s libel that “the Left have forgotten what it is to be Jews” all the more disappointing.
Rather than seeking to cozy up to a religious establishment that discriminates between Jews and deliberately ensures its followers are condemned to a life of poverty by denying them any formal secular education, Gabbay should be leading the fight against the power of the haredi minority over the secular Israeli majority.
The close links between the haredi parties and Netanyahu’s Likud are an ideal target for a real opposition leader determined to put an end to Netanyahu’s disastrous rule. The majority of Israelis have no sympathy for the haredi lifestyle, particularly not when it comes at their expense. Rather than worrying about the spiritual state of the Left, Gabbay should be targeting the unholy coalition the Right has entered into with the haredim.
While Gabbay is right in assuming that Labor needs to attract votes from the Center and even the Center-Right to return to power, the way to do so is not by becoming a more moderate version of the Likud.
Instead, Labor has to offer a new, fairer vision for the country, one in which haredim are free to follow their religious beliefs, but without imposing their fanatical version of Judaism on the rest of the country.
Netanyahu’s government is in hock to the extreme settler Right and the strident haredi minority, both of which are undermining the country’s existence as a democratic and modern state. The government crisis over Litzman’s resignation is an indication as to just how deeply this country has regressed over the years of Netanyahu’s premiership.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.