When the Netanyahu-Gantz government fell on December 22, hurtling the country to yet another round of elections, attacking the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) seemed certain to become the low-hanging fruit of the election campaign.
Why? Because anger, frustration and resentment toward the haredi community was running at a fever pitch as segments of haredi society were flouting the coronavirus restrictions: sending their children to school, while the general public’s children were stuck at home; attending mass funerals for rabbis, while funerals for the loved ones of others in the country were severely restricted; and seemingly going on with life as if there was no corona – or, even more galling, as if there was no central government telling them what they could or could not do.
After years of slow advances in haredi integration into Israeli society – spearheaded by haredi women moving en masse into the workforce, where they both learned about Israeli society and had Israeli society exposed to them – the coronavirus hit and set that whole process back many years.
All of a sudden, the discussion in the public square stopped being about integrating haredim, and instead became concerned with teaching them a lesson, putting them in their place, and forcing them to play by the rules of the state. Enough codling the haredim: time for the cudgel.
With that as the atmosphere, it could have been expected that the political parties – especially those that have waved the banner in years past of greater religious pluralism, of separating church from state, of haredi enlistment into the IDF, of public transport and commerce on Shabbat – would have seized the opportunity and launched a full-court press against the haredim.
For the most part, these parties – Meretz, Labor and Yesh Atid – did not take the bait.
For the most part, their campaigns have not been blatantly anti-haredi. Yes, in favor of store openings on Shabbat. Yes, in favor of breaking the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over personal-status issues. Yes, in favor of greater haredi enlistment into the army. But their campaigns have not been anti-haredi per se.
The one exception has been Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman.
LIBERMAN HAS run a nasty campaign against the haredim, depicting them as only concerned about funding, and as parasites living off the sweat and toil of others. And the campaign seems to have worked, since Liberman’s poll numbers are remaining steady at between seven to eight seats.
Liberman’s anti-haredi rhetoric is finding an audience. On Friday night, he opined on a popular television talk show that “the haredim and Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] are on a wheelbarrow together to the garbage dump.”
While that comment was widely condemned, Liberman – being Liberman – doubled down. Speaking of the haredim in an Army Radio interview on Sunday, he said they have turned into a cult, that their behavior is pig-like, and that they are desecrating God’s name.
Referring to an advertisement run by the United Torah Judaism Party last week depicting Reform and Conservative Jews as dogs, Liberman said that it was hypocritical of them to now complain about his speech.
But Liberman is missing the point. True, the UTJ advertisement against a High Court of Justice ruling allowing non-Orthodox conversions in Israel was deplorable. But so too are his comments against the haredim.
What did everyone’s mother tell them at one time or another growing up? Two wrongs don’t make a right. Defending slander against one group of people by saying “well, they do it too” is not an overly convincing line of defense.
That Liberman is the main fomenter against the haredim should come of no surprise. In the past, he aimed his incendiary rhetoric at Israeli Arabs. The former foreign and defense minister’s rhetoric hasn’t changed, just his target – following his shifting read of the political map.
THERE ARE a myriad of reasons why Israel must not go to a fifth election, a plethora of reasons why the country needs to put this dizzying election dance behind us and settle down.
The country needs a stable government so it can plan, so it can make decisions that are not immediately suspect of being motivated overwhelmingly by political considerations, so it can set goals and try to attain them. It also needs to avoid a fifth election to avoid yet another round of the divisive and poisonous rhetoric that election campaigns inevitably breed.
On the positive side of the ledger, however, is the fact that for the most part, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party is the only one that has slid into the morass of anti-haredi messaging.
In October, even before the elections were called but when they were very much in the air, Meretz posted a campaign poster on its Facebook page depicting haredi politicians with blood on their hands, an indictment of the behavior of haredi politicians during the pandemic.
The post was roundly condemned, and Meretz took it down shortly afterward. Neither that party – whose opposition to haredi control of the religious establishment goes back to the days of Shulamit Aloni in the 1980s – nor Labor, nor Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – which entered the Knesset in 2013 on a plank of wanting to alter the religious status quo in the country – have gone after the haredim during this campaign like Liberman has.
Why? Perhaps because they realize this type of discourse is unseemly. Or perhaps because they want to keep open the option – slim as it may seem now – of one day sitting in a coalition with the haredim.
Whatever the reason, their restraint is welcome. As were the words of Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid following Liberman’s “trash heap” comment, following a statement by UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus saying that IDF female soldiers converting in the army are shiksas (a disparaging term for non-Jewish women), and following a recent put-down by Netanyahu of New Hope MK Yifat Shasha-Biton:
“The haredim do not need to be thrown to the trash heap,” he said. “The Reform do not need to be thrown to the dogs. IDF soldiers are not shiksas. Leftists are not traitors. Rightists are not fascists. Female MK members are not ‘paka paka Shasha Shasha.’
“We must begin to start to speak differently, to act differently, to argue differently. The politicians are dragging Israeli society to the abyss. The time has come for sane discourse.”
With Israel now just a week away from the election, those are the types of words the county needs to hear – not that a segment of the population should be carted out to the trash.