Haredi fallout

The ultra-Orthodox parties bide their time as they assess the implications of being shunted out of the government coalition

Meir Porush521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Meir Porush521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Meir Porush doesn’t so much walk into his Knesset office, rather he blows in like a strong wind. With just a half hour between a morning session on the Knesset floor and a United Torah Judaism (UTJ) faction meeting at 2 pm, the veteran Knesset Member appears annoyed that he’s got to use the break for a media interview.
Perhaps as a result, the look on Porush’s face isn’t so much anger, but rather utter, complete disdain. If body language is any indication, speaking to the media is a necessary, if distasteful, requirement of the job, and our conversation appears to be just one more rerun of the same interview he’s given a thousand times over his 17 years in the Knesset.
No, ultra-Orthodox Haredim aren’t worried that lawmakers might approve an en masse draft of yeshiva students. Yes, it is reasonable to marry synagogue-and-state issues on a variety of issues in order to impose a minimum of traditional Judaism in the Israeli public sphere. And who the hell are you seculars to tell us what to do, anyway? It’s not exactly as if secular Israel is a bastion of virtue, you know.
And yet, there is more to the conversation than Porush’s apparent distaste for the media.
As with all the Haredi Members of Knesset at present, the look on his face conveys a complex mix of deep concern and smug confidence. On the one hand, the Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi parties believe they have a strong mandate to rewrite the social contract between the state and its Haredi citizenry, and they set about accomplishing that goal as soon as Yesh Atid 's 19 freshman Knesset Members were sworn in. At least on paper, the two parties have the numbers – 31 seats between them – and the clout inside the government to bring about real change on issues of national service, education and employment levels.
On the other hand, there is no question in Porush’s mind that the Haredi world is stronger than any challenge the current government – or any government, for that matter – has to throw at them. To Porush, Lapid and his colleagues are little more than the latest incarnation of what the halakhic literature calls minim – Jewish assimilationists whose hatred for the Jewish religion and for religious Jews has contributed to governmental decrees against Jews and Jewish practice for centuries.
One Bnei Brak rabbi even referred to the Knesset as “Knesset haminim,” the heretics’ parliament.
“Their hatred [for us] won’t last very long,” Porush tells The Jerusalem Report. “It isn’t a new phenomenon. Ten years ago, Lapid’s father won 15 seats for his Shinui (Change) party, just a few less than Yesh Atid got now.
Then, like now, they joined together with the National Religious Party and everybody said, ‘Ah, now they’ll stick it to the Haredim.’ But it was just a passing wave. We represent a 3,000 year-old tradition. That’s what’s going to win. We’ve survived all the exiles, and we’ll survive this one, too.”
At present, it is too early to tell what the current Knesset holds for the Haredi parties, or for the country, in general. Although nearly four months have passed since Election Day, the government was only sworn in on March 18, just five days before parliament broke for the Passover recess. Lawmakers only returned to work on April 22, meaning there were less than two weeks (as of this writing) for Haredi MKs to get a feel for the new reality and to set party policy in accordance.
At the same time, in lengthy interviews with The Report, Knesset Members from both the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties had little to say about their parties’ policy goals or their plans while siting in opposition. Meir Porush, former deputy finance minister MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) and others stressed their commitment to continue serving their constituents from the opposition benches, but offered little insight into how their parties would try to fight looming budget cuts, education reform, and especially the everpresent military draft issue.
Certainly, Yair Lapid’s initial address to the Knesset as Finance Minister did not bode well for future relations between the sides – Porush, together with UTJ colleague Moshe Gafni, tried repeatedly to shout Lapid down, to which the latter responded with a furious attack against the Haredim. “I don’t take orders from you,” Lapid said to Gafni. “The state is done taking orders from you.”
Off the Knesset floor, it is the education issue that rankles Porush more than any other. More than any other current point of disagreement, he said the attempt to impose basic math, English and science education on Orthodox students is a fundamental breach, not only of the democracy that secular Israelis claim to hold as their highest ideal but also of an explicit deal made between Orthodox leaders and David Ben-Gurion in 1948.
“Our rabbis agreed not to oppose the Declaration of Independence, but they demanded a minimum commitment from the state in return. Part of that minimum was the right for every parent to educate his children according to his beliefs. It never occurred to anybody that if a Haredi family wants to educate their kids in the way they believe is correct, the state would come along to say, ‘No funding for you.’ It is a basic, basic breach of that understanding and of basic democracy.”
The Jerusalem Report: But the current Haredi education system is educating students toward poverty. Israeli taxpayers are the ones who will have to bear the fiscal burden of that education in future welfare programs.
MK Porush: But that’s my right. Twenty years from now, we’ll be a majority here.
When that happens, what would you say if we tried to pass a law requiring students to pray three times a day and to learn a page of Talmud every day. Would you consider that democratic or would you say it is religious coercion? The folks who are telling me today that I’m educating my kids for poverty will come along then and tell me that my law to force people to pray three times a day is antidemocratic.
The demands being made of us today are against our beliefs.
TJR: That’s the part I don’t get. What part of Israel’s core education requirement goes against your beliefs? Math? MK Porush: The fact that they are telling us what to do is what goes against our beliefs.
Our kids study exactly the way our rabbis told us to do 100 years ago. The principle at work here is our absolutely, inviolate right to make decisions for and about our community without outside interference. The Vizhnitzer Rebbe once said that even if the civil authorities told us to study (the Talmudic) tractate Baba Kama, and we were studying tractate Baba Metzia, we would say no. They mustn’t get involved with us.
Furthermore, who the hell are you to level accusations against Haredi schools? You want to talk about core subjects? How about let’s talk about crime. Where is there more violence in school – in yeshivot, or in secular schools? Clearly, secular schools are more violent, by far. So how do they have the chutzpah to make demands of our schools to become more like theirs? I don’t claim that everything in our camp is great, but we are certainly doing a whole lot better than the secular schools. So I’d make a simple suggestion for Mr Lapid and the rest of the “education reform” crowd.
Stay out of our schools. How dare they tell us what to do? It would be hard to imagine a different tenor between Porush and his colleague, Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen. Whereas Porush strikes an angry and aggressive stance, there is a deep look of disappointment and pain in Cohen’s eyes when he discusses the current government alignment. Unlike Porush, a large, boisterous man who is not shy to stress his belief that the Haredi world is locked in an existential struggle with the state, Cohen is short and soft-spoken. Where as Porush speaks unapologetically in “us-and-them” terms, Cohen feels deeply that he and his constituents are an integral part of the tapestry that is Israeli society, a public that has been let down by a failure on the part of secular politicians to understand the Haredi public.
Significantly, Cohen says the two Haredi parties definitely view themselves as a Knesset bloc, but at least on paper, Shas and UTJ have little reason to unite. Whereas the common ultra-Orthodox stereotypes – no army service, full-time yeshiva or kollel learning well into adulthood – apply to a majority of UTJ voters, they do not accurately describe the Sephardi, working-class constituency that forms the bulk of Shas’s voting public. For this reason, it is not clear why Shas would make blanket army exemptions or continued stipends a critical part of its political platform.
But Cohen makes clear that Shas shares UTJ’s concerns, and that the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has made clear that the two parties share one political agenda. There is no sense of irony when Cohen defends the Haredi utopian situation of a “society of learners,” despite the fact that no such society has ever existed.
In this context, Cohen’s assertion that the settlements are the biggest liability facing Israel today, acquires added significance. Cohen believes the settlers cost the country far more than the Haredim, in economic, political and diplomatic terms. It’s not a view that’s likely to be popular with many Shas voters, and not one he’s voiced in the past, but viewed with the dual lens of Shas’ commitment to a bloc with the Ashkenazi party and UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni’s threat in February to manufacture a coalition crisis that would break up the Yesh Atid – Bayit Yehudi alliance, the statement takes on additional meaning.
Gafni’s opportunity to create coalition chaos may have come earlier than even Gafni expected, on April 30, when Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem al-Thani said the Arab League would update its 2002 peace offer, opening the door to land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. The deal is a non-starter for the Bayit Yehudi faction, but could be attractive to many members of Yesh Atid. MKs and spokespeople for both parties said they had not had time to study the proposal, but given the historical support on the part of some Haredi rabbis for land-for-peace deals, the peace proposal could play a key role in the Orthodox parties’ revenge for being snubbed.
If there is any anger in Cohen’s voice, it is reserved for former Chief Justice Dorit Beinish, whom Cohen calls an “extremist” who “stuck her nose” into the explosive arena of Haredi national service. He says the Tal Law, ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last February and which expired in August, was the optimal solution to deal with equal national service in Israel. He is passionate in his belief that the law was accomplishing its goal of bringing Haredim into the IDF and civilian national service frameworks, and from there ultimately into the work force.
Cohen is not alone in that analysis. Sar-Shalom Gerbi, director of civil service programs, said Haredi participation in non-military service programs spiked from 22 participants in 2008 to several hundred in 2013. While Gerbi agrees that the numbers are not yet sufficient, he says it is important to recognize the accomplishments the program has racked up.
“You’ve got to understand that it is a long, complicated process to bring Haredim into any service program,” he said. “There are cultural blocks that threaten participants – some younger siblings have been kicked out of their yeshivot, some other siblings have complained of trouble getting married in the Haredi world because the stigma attached to performing national service can stain an entire family.
“But despite it all, we’ve had 5,283 volunteers since 2008. I’m certainly not going to get involved in the current politics of this debate, but I will say that the success we’ve had has been the result of working together with the Haredi leadership, not butting heads with it. And ultimately, the result of this process will be to strengthen our economy.
Eighty-four percent of national service graduates enter the workforce or pursue university study. It’s a healthy, positive process but one that has to be handled delicately,” Gerbi said.
Meir Porush leans heavily on his desk and checks his watch. As noted, the conversation has revolved largely around Yair Lapid, and eventually – predictably – moves towards Lapid’s declaration that he is “prepared for war” in order to pass the state budget. As with other statements by his political rival, the tall man with the long, white beard is unmoved.
“What do you mean ‘war’? We won’t come with guns, we won’t stab people. Only secular people stab. There’s no murder in our communities. I mean, you might have a rogue case here or there, it is a rare exception. Just think about the news you hear on the radio. Who’s killing each other, secular people or Haredim? Far more seculars.
“The only question here is who will win this battle, and it isn’t even really a question. We’ll win. The believers always win. Lapid wants war? I say ‘bring it on.’” 