‘Haim,” said Menachem Begin into the telephone receiver, “who told your wife about the job you will get?” The newly elected prime minister was speaking to his loyalist Haim Corfu, and referring to the title – coalition chairman – he would soon don.
“You did,” said the lawmaker. “Then I am now telling you that El Al won’t fly on Shabbat,” said the boss, with ultra-Orthodox leader Menachem Porush at his side (Avi Shilon, Begin: 1913-1922, p. 270).
It was May 1977, and Corfu was trying to dissuade Begin from heeding the ultra-Orthodox demand that El Al not fly on Shabbat. Begin, however, did not care for Corfu’s financial concerns. He thought strategically, and acted swiftly.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now in its 44th year, the consequent pact became a fixture of Israeli politics. Now, as the pandemic leads the Jewish state to the brink of social abyss, Likud’s voters must realize this deal’s recklessness and decadence.
BEGIN’S CALCULATION served momentary circumstances, but had deep roots.
Faced with an option of a broader, but less conservative, coalition with the liberal Dash, Begin preferred a narrow but conservative coalition with ultra-Orthodoxy.
Beyond this calculus was Begin’s affinity for tradition, and his sympathy to ultra-Orthodoxy’s Israeli traumas, which harked back to David Ben-Gurion’s hostility to its way of life. Begin’s alliance with ultra-Orthodoxy was therefore more than a stratagem. It was a political romance and a social roadmap.
Flanked by religious Zionism’s messianic youths and the Middle Eastern immigration’s disenfranchised proletariat, Begin used ultra-Orthodoxy to consolidate a coalition of minorities that the Labor-led establishment would be at a loss to match.
Likud’s concessions to ultra-Orthodoxy were wholesale.
Military-service deferment rose from an annual 400 to more than 10,000. Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas became budgeted, child allowances for big families were multiplied, and married yeshiva students’ healthcare fees and property taxes were shaved. A yeshiva student came to cost the state more than a monthly NIS 4,000, according to Hiddush, a nonprofit promoting religious freedom.
In return, Likud got parliamentary stability and political longevity. On the face of it, this alliance was a new version of the historic alliance between religious Zionism and the Labor Party. In fact, it was its perversion.
Modern Orthodoxy and Labor were real partners, in both faith and sacrifice. They believed with equal conviction in the Jewish people’s duty to seize its political fate, and they jointly built the Jewish state and fought for its defense.
That’s not what happened between Likud and ultra-Orthodoxy. It might have been, had Likud demanded from ultra-Orthodoxy’s rabbis ideological concessions, like teaching their children math, science and English, or sending their men to the army.
This attitude never crossed the minds of Likud’s leaders, who moved on such fronts only in response to High Court rulings, and then, too, grudgingly and halfheartedly.
It was an unholy alliance all along, a marriage of convenience between ultra-patriots and anti-patriots, a pact whose cynicism the coronavirus has now laid bare.
THE NUMBERS are unambiguous. One in four ultra-Orthodox Israelis tested these days for the coronavirus is diagnosed positive, and one in three Israelis tested positive is ultra-Orthodox.
No, ultra-Orthodoxy’s response to the crisis has not been monolithic, and the crisis is not limited to ultra-Orthodoxy. Many parts of the ultra-Orthodox community have taken the Health Ministry’s instructions seriously, and some also at an effort, creating partitioned capsules in yeshiva halls and moving holiday prayers outdoors.
And the rules’ disparagement was a joint venture in which many other Israelis starred, from wealthy businessmen who held lavish private parties, through Arab clans that held big weddings, to anti-Netanyahu protesters who held crowded demonstrations.
Even so, ultra-Orthodoxy was different because some of its mass violations were inspired by some of its leaders.
For instance, the huge Belz synagogue in Jerusalem held its holiday prayers in total disregard of the pandemic and its regulations, with thousands of mask-less worshipers crowded within its marble-plated walls. Similarly, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Yisrael Hager, held a post-Yom Kippur celebratory tisch where no one wore masks or kept distance. The same conduct reportedly happened in many hassidic shtiebels.
These are not anecdotes. Rather, these are symptoms of a political disease, the sour grapes of an era in which Likud effectively told ultra-Orthodoxy that secular Israel is fine with the ultra-Orthodox way. And the ultra-Orthodox way means placing the tribe above the public, the ghetto above the country, and the rabbi above the state.
On Yom Kippur eve, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly called the Belzer Rebbe, Yissachar Dov Rokeach, and begged him to obey the Health Ministry’s instructions. He didn’t. And why would he? Life with that very Netanyahu taught him that the government is at best an adviser, at worst a nuisance.
Now, as the pandemic persists and its damage spreads, chances grow that it will be for Likud what the Yom Kippur War was for Labor’s hegemony: the grand fiasco that triggered political collapse.
Whatever the upcoming months’ medical developments, what we are witnessing socially is the result of a political decadence that fermented for more than 40 years.
The formula whereby nationalists helped rabbis industrialize draft dodging, discourage work, obstruct family planning, prevent modern education, and shove thousands into shoebox apartments in secluded neighborhoods – could only stand for that long.
When leaders show how to take more, give less, and contribute nothing; when they cultivate tribalism, creating separate parties and schools for Ashkenazim and non-Ashkenazim; when they effectively tell their followers daily that the government is not really their leader, only an object of their real leaders’ hoodwinking – a day arrives when the whole structure caves in on its dwellers and builders.
It’s been one long political farce, economic scam, and social tragedy, and – as the virus it has courted now makes plain – its time is up.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity