MIDDLE ISRAEL: Lessons from a stormy political week

At the heart of this political thriller lay a tragedy, the tragedy of ultra-Orthodoxy.

An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew is being carried away by police after blocking a main road in Bnei Barak during a protest (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew is being carried away by police after blocking a main road in Bnei Barak during a protest
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Drama, farce, and tragedy pervaded Jerusalem this week, as our politicians nearly pushed one another to the throes of a general election that most of them didn’t need or want.
The drama was about Benjamin Netanyahu, who, like a deer caught in the headlights, seemed petrified by the confluence of legal mess and political siege. The prime minister’s disappearance while his coalition partners locked horns left him losing twice:
First, when he passively helped the impression that he wants an early election, presumably placing his personal situation above the national interest; and then when the commotion’s protagonists failed to deliver the goods he apparently expected, namely a June election where he would have arrived as a suspect rather than a defendant, because his pretrial hearing with the attorney-general is expected only in the fall.
Instead, Netanyahu emerged as a prisoner of his own political bedmates, Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett, who imposed on him a long delay, apparently plotting to do with Netanyahu’s popularity – which threatens them electorally – what Delilah did with Samson’s hair.
This is besides the fact that at no point during the crisis, ignited by ultra-Orthodoxy’s attempt to blackmail further extended draft exemptions, did Netanyahu say anything in the name of any principle, such as national responsibility, which Bennett cited, or civic equality, whose demise Avigdor Liberman decried.
Even so, Liberman supplied the week’s farce.
WHAT BEGAN with a grandstanding assertion that “there are moments when you have to go with what you believe in rather than with what pays,” ended in sheepish retreat when Liberman remained in Netanyahu’s bosom despite the Knesset’s passage in first reading of the amended haredi conscription bill that originally sparked Liberman’s ire.
This about-face was of course unrelated to the previous night’s TV poll that claimed Liberman might not pass the electoral threshold (which he himself had once initiated, in the dashed hope of eliminating Arab factions). Liberman said it was a time to do what one believes in, and he believes in his political survival.
Farcical was also the Labor Party’s conduct, when its mandarins overruled their elected leader, Avi Gabbay – who demanded an early election – when they messaged Netanyahu they would oppose a June election.
The suggestion that Labor prefers Netanyahu arriving at the polls indicted sounds plausible, but the impression that its lawmakers fear an electoral trouncing is inescapable.
Then again, with all due respect to its drama and farce, at the heart of this political thriller lay a tragedy, the tragedy of ultra-Orthodoxy.
THE AMENDED conscription bill, which nearly sparked an early election, limits the defense minister’s current mandate to draft more yeshiva students when their overall annual conscription quotas are not met.
This, along with most of the bill’s other clauses, is part of a broader effort to stem ultra-Orthodox young adults’ gathering flight from the Pale of Settlement into which this community’s leaders maneuvered it over the decades.
This is also the context in which United Torah Judaism’s nominal leader, Ya’acov Litzman, demoted himself from minister to deputy minister, thus restoring ultra-Orthodoxy’s historic refusal to share responsibility for any Zionist government’s decisions.
Like a drug addict escaping a rehab program, Litzman could not part with the shtetl Jew’s reflex of “give the czar the minimum and take from him the maximum.”
This escape from responsibility is tragic enough, but the ultra-Orthodox tragedy as it surfaced this week lies not only in its leaders’ exploitation of the Jewish majority that sprawls beyond their ghetto walls, but even more so in the way ultra-Orthodox leaders treat one another.
That tragedy, the tragedy of ultra-Orthodox atomization, became manifest when it turned out that Israel was brought to the brink of an early election not by “the ultra-Orthodox,” as many secularists assumed, but by only one of ultra-Orthodoxy’s countless factions – Rabbi Litzman’s.
REPRESENTING THE Gur Hassidim, Litzman did not even inform the rest of his faction about his reckless ultimatum, let alone bring it to their vote.
The anti-hassidic lawmakers, whose Judaic roots are in prewar Lithuania’s yeshivot, are more pragmatic than Litzman’s master, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
Echoing the historic contrast between the hassidic movement’s emphasis on emotion and its opponents’ emphasis on intellect, the gaps within UTJ are no less legitimate than any other political party’s internal disharmonies.
What’s not legitimate is unilateral imposition of one faction on the rest, and what is altogether derelict is one man’s imposition on an entire country, let alone a country whose government he does not allow his representative to fully join.
The Talmud’s account (Sanhedrin 88b) that, before the Temple’s destruction, “discord would not proliferate in Israel,” because rabbinical decisions were made by vote – became a dim memory over centuries during which rabbis issued rulings without attending parliamentary votes, participating in legislative debates or experiencing the majority’s rule.
This aspect of life in galut continues to plague ultra-Orthodox leadership, which cannot bring itself to behave democratically even within its own house. This disregard for the other underpins the deformed social order that Rabbi Alter and his parliamentary minion are out to preserve, and this is what drives their rear-end battle to reverse ultra-Orthodox men’s accelerating conscription to the IDF.
Yet the trend whereby 2,500 ultra-Orthodox men are drafted annually (up from several hundred 20 years ago) and 10,000 learn professions in new colleges will prevail, because ultra-Orthodox men are voting by the feet against the formula of maximum budgeting, minimum service and minimum work. Still, Rabbi Alter’s quest to block ultra-Orthodoxy’s growing conscription demands a reply.
No, yeshiva boys should not be forcibly conscripted; the Jewish state is not czarist Russia. Instead, the taxpaying public’s budgeting of yeshivot should be slashed, and soldiers’ salaries should be hiked.
The IDF’s roughly 175,000 regular soldiers are salaried between NIS 2,000 (third-year combat troops) and hardly NIS 700 (first-year noncombat). Since combat troops are hardly one-fifth of the army, the regular soldiers’ annual salaries add up to roughly NIS 2 billion at most.
The yeshivot get from the current government a record NIS 1.224b. per annum. In other words, cutting yeshiva budgeting by half could raise soldiers’ pay by some 30%.
Having done this financial math, there is no need in solving its political equation. Litzman will do that himself.