The leaders of the haredi factions – Arye Deri of Shas, Degel Hatorah’s Moshe Gafni, and Agudat Yisrael’s Ya’acov Litzman – competed with each other Tuesday over who could come up with the nastiest insult for Yamina head Naftali Bennett.
“The government headed by Bennett will destroy the Shabbat,” bewailed Deri.
“That evil one,” Gafni thundered. “The name of the evil shall rot.”
“After he signed the agreement he just signed, he should take off his kippah; he is shaming it,” Litzman declared.
The three leaders were spitting fire and brimstone at a press conference in the Knesset they called because – they charged – Bennett was about to destroy the delicate status quo that governs religion-state relations in the country.
They warned that the new government that Bennett is slated to lead will let municipal rabbis conduct conversions, diversify kashrut supervision, alter how chief rabbis are elected to ensure that at least one of them will be from the religious-Zionist camp, allow commerce and public transportation on Shabbat, and enable civil marriages.
Bennett, they argued, was leading nothing less than an onslaught on the country’s hallowed status quo. And this even though Bennett’s coalition agreement with Yesh Atid stipulates that the status quo will be preserved.
Hidden beneath all the over-the-top rhetoric and the warning that Israel, led by its first kippah-clad prime minister, will erase all vestiges of it being a Jewish state, lies the real haredi concern: that with anti-haredi Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the Finance Ministry, his party also holding the chairmanship of the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, and the haredi parties sitting in the opposition, funding for haredim will be curtailed.
The concern is less that the Jewish character of the state will disappear, and more the impact of being in the opposition will have on the budget going to the haredi community.
While Bennett has said that the budgets to the yeshivot would not be curtailed, government funds to the haredi communities will not flow to the same degree as they did when the haredi parties controlled the Interior Ministry, Religious Services Ministry, Housing Ministry, and Knesset Finance Committee – as is the situation in the current government.
But it is unaesthetic to talk about the fear that the spigot will be turned off; it’s more acceptable to warn that the new leaders of the Jewish state will strip it of its Jewish flavor.
The irony here is that the vaunted status quo that the haredi parties say they want to preserve so jealously, has eroded over the years precisely when the haredi parties were in power.
Over the last two decades, commercial activity on Shabbat has exploded, the Chief Rabbinate has lost its monopoly on the kashrut market, and while nonreligious weddings for Jewish couples are not recognized in Israel, those who opt to live together as common-law couples enjoy almost the same rights as those whose marriages are registered by the Chief Rabbinate.
There is far less “religious coercion” now than there was before 1977 when the haredi parties became a fixture in one government after the next.
Over the years the haredi parties have paid lip service to the status quo, even picked a major fight over one issue or another, but it has never been their top priority.
Their top priority, as Shuki Friedman, the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, put it recently, “is the budget, to maintain the world of Torah: religious life, funding for yeshivot and kollelim, without which the haredi community can’t exist.”
And the reason for their fury is a sense that those budgets are now in danger.
Eli Paley, the publisher of the haredi Mishpacha magazine and chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, said in an interview last month that preserving the status quo has never been the top priority for the haredi parties.
“They gave up on this front from the very beginning,” Paley said. “You have to ask yourselves to what extent are the haredi representatives really bothered by businesses which open on Shabbat? I would say not that much. If there is work on train infrastructure on Shabbat, that embarrasses them because they are part of a government that allows it. But even there, if you push them into the corner, it is not that high up on their agenda.”
For the haredi parties, he said, “there are other issues that they see as more pressing and important. You need to remember that when it comes to religion-state issues among haredim, as opposed to religious Zionists, it is not that important for the state to be run according to religion.
They don’t see the state as part of their religious values – rather, they see the state as something where they can play in the democratic game. Religious Zionists, on the other hand, have this vision of the state with a Jewish character. The haredi approach is ‘Give me Yavne and its sages,’ or how are we able to preserve what is important to us?”
Paley said that the haredim do not attribute any religious value to the state – that is a characteristic of religious-Zionist thinking – and consequently the religious character of the state is secondary to what is most important to them: preserving the world of Torah and enabling them to live their life as they see fit.
And that is why their protests are disingenuous.
To hear the haredi parties harangue against Bennett for wanting to “touch” the Chief Rabbinate is ironic, since the haredi public has never held the Chief Rabbinate in high esteem – it is the religious-Zionist community that has historically placed value on the institution and used its services.
The haredi parties do have a reason for concern with the ushering in of a new government they will not be a part of, and their concern about Liberman – who ran an ugly anti-haredi campaign in the last couple of elections – is legitimate.
But the answer is not to launch ad hominem attacks on Bennett and his fellow Yamina colleagues. The answer is not to set themselves up as the arbiters as to who does, and does not, have the right to wear a kippah or clothe themselves in religious symbols.
Silently, and not so silently, there are legions of Israelis pleased that the haredi parties will not be sitting around the cabinet table in the next government, and that they will not be determining who gets what resources. Not because these people are necessarily anti-haredi – though, if truth be told, that unfortunately exists aplenty as well, and is just wrong – but, rather, because of the style of haredi politics; a perception among many that the mindset of the haredi politicians is, “I will do and get for my constituents, and the hell with everyone else.”
One can argue whether that perception is fact-based or not, but few will deny that this is indeed the perception among the general public. And that perception is only reinforced by the fits and tantrums the haredi political leadership is now throwing over Bennett.