Reality Check: Knesset contretemps

Country needs a government prepared to deal with most serious issue facing society: Economic unsustainability of haredi way of life.

Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
There’s more than an even chance that this summer’s Knesset session, due to start next month, will be this government’s last. As much as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists that he is not interested in calling early elections, a coalition entering its fourth year is far from stable, despite the impressive majority it might have on paper. In fact, the cracks are already beginning to appear
Once the Knesset passes the halfway point of its four-year term, its members are already busy thinking about the upcoming polls, and for good reason: no Israeli government has ever sat out its complete tenure. Kadima has already shrugged off Tzipi Livni and placed Shaul Mofaz in the driver’s seat for what will be a make-or-break election for this most unnatural of parties, glued together more by a dream of sitting in government than any cohesive vision for Israeli society
Inside the Likud, ministers such as Moshe Ya’alon and Yisrael Katz are busy sharpening their right-wing credentials in preparation for the party primaries, attacking the settlers’ bête noire, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at any and every opportunity
The words “cabinet collegiality” are not part of this government’s dictionary
The divisions inside the coalition are only getting wider as the government faces a number of issues it can no longer put off dealing with. Among these issues are the fate of illegal building in the Ulpana neighborhood of the Beit El settlement and the future of the Migron outpost, which the High Court has – finally – ordered must be evacuated by August 1
On top of this, the Tal Law expires in July, ending the scandalous exemption from IDF service enjoyed by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students. It’s hard to see how a government including Yisrael Beytenu on the one hand, and Shas and United Torah Judaism on the other, are going to find a compromise on the issue of equal service for all, particularly when they know they will soon be facing their electorates and need some accomplishment to show their voters
And then there’s the upcoming 2013 state budget. The economic reality is that the government will have to cut some NIS 15 billion from next year’s budget if it wants to keep the national deficit from ballooning
But few politicians seeking re-election are prepared to vote in favor of sizable cuts in social spending. As Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told fellow Likud members last month: “The current coalition will find it difficult to reach an agreement over the 2013 budget. A party with 27 seats [the Likud] will struggle to pass a budget so conflicted in its priorities between socioeconomic needs and security considerations.” BUT THESE considerations, important as they might be, are only short-term issues
What the country really needs is a government prepared to deal with the most serious issue facing Israeli society: the economic unsustainability of the haredi way of life and the effect it has on the rest of society given this sector’s ever-increasing population growth
Dry statistics are one thing, but a chance meeting at a recent social event with a haredi acquaintance drove home for me the sheer absurdity of today’s system
Avraham (not his real name) is in his mid- 40s and, thank God, the father of nine. Luckily for Avraham, he doesn’t have to provide for his family
Instead, the taxpayers are doing it for him
Every day, when the yeshiva is in session (and there are some extremely long breaks in between the three annual terms), Avraham takes a shared taxi to Mea She’arim around seven in the morning and has breakfast at the yeshiva. He then studies with a partner whatever topic he has decided to learn – there is no set syllabus, and each student is free to choose whichever area interests him (of course it’s a him – the women are too busy bringing up children, perhaps working part-time and engaging with the real world)
After a break for lunch provided by the yeshiva, it’s time for an afternoon nap and then an afternoon study session with a different partner. Again, there are no set topics and Avraham is under no pressure whatsoever to sit any exam to show that his time in study has actually paid off in terms of increased knowledge
All this pursuit of Torah knowledge for the sake of learning alone is financed by the state through a stipend Avraham receives from the yeshiva and child allowances. And it’s unlimited: Avraham has been going to the yeshiva daily for the past 20 years or so, studying whatever takes his fancy, without a care in the world. As he told me, it’s a great life. He’s doing something he enjoys, there’s no pressure and – this he didn’t say – I’m the one paying for him to spend his life this way
As Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer told a recent conference at Harvard Business School, this way of life is unsustainable
Pointedly, Fischer added: “I say to ultra-Orthodox groups... this will end. The question is whether it’s going to end by your doing something in cooperation with the rest of the population or in social conflict
But it cannot go on.” Netanyahu’s government has shown it’s unwilling to deal with this problem; for this alone, it deserves to fall. The question is: will the next coalition be any better?
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.