The haredi witch hunt – have we gone too far?

The line between equality and unfairness, and even oppression can be very fine.

Haredim protest WoW prayer 370 (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Haredim protest WoW prayer 370
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Two stories fascinated me in my youth. The first was the story of the Exodus. The manner in which the entire Jewish nation was suppressed and oppressed overtly by its Egyptian hosts has always fascinated me. The second was George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a political fable, a brilliant anthropomorphic description of the failings of the Communist revolution in Russia and its later hijacking by Stalinist authoritarianism. The book is a simple tale of animals staging a coup to take control of their farm from their autocratic human masters "for the sake of equality." As the story goes on the main characters become more and more human-like and hoodwink the ‘proletariat’ animals into working harder and harder, with the dogmatic declarations of equality buried deep beneath the reality of oppression. ‘Old Boxer’ the horse, in particular, stood out as a character to feel sorry for. The strongest and most hard-working animal on the farm, Old Boxer was lulled into putting all his efforts into working for the farm only for the promises of retirement to be put off longer and longer by the ‘leaders of the revolution.’ His eventual murder was covered up: all for the sake of equality, of course.
The two stories of the Egyptian enslavement and Animal Farm share a common theme: oppression of masses. The difference between the two is that the former was overt -- albeit eventually: apparently tradition has it that entire slavery began by Pharaoh tricking Jews into signing up for pyramid construction -- whilst the latter was covert, hidden behind the guise of equality.
Recently, the sweet banner of equality has once again been held high in the form of various budgetary and ‘defense’ laws in the Knesset. Held aloft by Yesh Atid and spearheaded by the eager Mr. Yair Lapid, who even went as far as suspending one of his own MKs for abstaining from a vote, the brunt of these ‘equality measures’ have been felt by the haredim. Child benefits have been instantly cut, social financial assistance scaled back, haredi schools forced into upping the study of secular subjects, and the enigmatically-spelled ‘Peri Bill’ has set in motion a forced draft of haredi men into the army. The average citizen was caught up in the Lapid fanfare too. He even managed to renege on his election promises of boosting the middle class without too significant a protest. Yet has this come full circle; have we victimized haredi society to a point where we have gone well beyond the realm of ‘equality’? Have the Yesh Atid MKs and their supporters become an Animal-Farm-esque equality-craving failure?
Quoting from The Jerusalem Post:“a senior official from the Education Ministry told the (Peri) committee that absence from yeshiva would not be authorized even for the purposes of mourning [shiva], hospitalization or the birth of a new child, and that a yeshiva that records 15 percent absence in two straight inspections would lose a proportionate amount of government funding.” Any Israeli in full-time employment or full-time education is given time off for family bereavement or hospitalization (in Jewish law during the shiva period one is not even allowed to study Torah). I challenge any university in the country to keep to these standards, but "for the sake of equality" yeshivas are to be held to this impossibly-oppressive standard.
The democratic equality and responsibility of serving in the IDF has not been left behind either. After much debate (haredi contribution to society via social action projects and even the annual one billion shekel boost to the economy from overseas haredim in full-time Torah study in Israel is not something to brush off lightly), it was decided to draft haredi men into the army from 2017 onwards. A democratic decision was made that the final age for haredi men to enlist be 21; the years 18-21 were to be left untouched, according to individual discretion. The logic behind this was that the formative years of 18-21 were deemed necessary to retain social stability. Yet with little regard for the committee, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein scrapped this and decided to reduce the age to 18, accompanied by a note warning Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the Bill is to be passed by August 20th. Democracy and equality at its very best?  Furthermore, the ‘Peri Bill’ would carry harsh prison sentences and financial penalties for those who refuse to sign up. No other segment of society is subject to such measures (and there is a national army evasion rate of over 25%); but ‘for equality’ haredim are to be singled out for harsher treatment. Then comes the move to cut benefits, forcing haredim to change their lifestyle and enter the job market suddenly and en masse; how many haredi men do we expect to suddenly find jobs with wages over four times their current family earnings to scrape above the poverty line?
When the Israeli-Arab Annette Haskiya writes on her Facebook page that she was approached by an Israeli PR firm and offered money to provoke haredim and film their responses with a secret camera, the goal being to publicly present them on-screen as misogynists) we have to be very worried about how far this talk of ‘equality’ has actually gone. Last Thursday the haredim were banned from the Kotel to allow the Women of the Wall to pray there undisturbed due to Ramadan. The Women of the Wall are a much smaller group and are vastly infrequent visitors to the Kotel compared to the haredim. And given that the furor has been caused by the women’s’ insistence on using the Kotel for their services, the most sensible thing would have been to save the expense and deny access to the Women of the Wall for this one time. When access is denied to the haredim instead, one has to worry what happened to our ‘equality’.
The same day as the Attorney-General’s baffling autonomous additions to the Peri Bill, the country was in uproar as the national tennis team was fined 10,000 euros by the World Tennis Association for refusing to play their Davis Cup tie on the upcoming Yom Kippur. The irony in the chronological juxtaposition could not have been more apparent: if illogical equality is what we are craving then the bitter twist is that it only seems 'equal’ to demand that all teams play on Yom Kippur. The line between equality and unfairness, and even oppression can be very fine.
It seems to me that Yesh Atid have crossed that line, with its media-savvy techniques, fooling most of the country into supporting these measures. Rather than raising the banner of equality it seems to be a case of ‘all of society is treated equally, but some are treated more equal than others.’