Reality Check: Netanyahu’s weakness, our dime

If the PM couldn’t even issue a statement of support for the rule of law in the face of the petty Emmanuel standoff, the chances of his standing up to the haredi parties on issues that really affect their way of life are slim indeed.

Seeing the photograph of the haredi father from Emmanuel tenderly saying good-bye to his children before making his triumphant entry to prison last week didn’t bring tears to my eyes. Having had to say good-bye to my children on a regular basis as I left for reserve duty for up to a month at a time, I don’t regard a two-week stateenforced absence from the family home as an overwhelming tragedy on a par with czarist or Bolshevik persecution.
Who knows, just as I found my reserve army duty as a chance to mix with people outside my normal social circle, perhaps the 35 haredi men will find their incarceration in a low-level security prison an opportunity to expand their cultural horizons. But probably not, and that’s a shame.
Very little good has come out of the High Court’s decision to jail the men, and a little social mixing between these haredi fathers and the secular inmates would at least begin to open up lines of communication between two very different segments of the population.
It’s important to remember that despite the mass demonstrations, minute-by-minute media coverage and front-page photographs, last week’s jailing of the Emmanuel parents is not a watershed in Israeli democracy. It is more a classic example of two sides scampering up a tree without checking whether the ladder is still there when they need to climb down.
As the dust settles, the haredim have gained nothing except a certain amount of self-satisfaction by challenging the High Court, while the court needlessly allowed itself to be dragged into petty arm-twisting. It’s a shame that on Sunday the High Court failed to revoke the mothers’ prison sentences, postponing their decision for another couple of days and thereby allowing the issue to continue festering.
THE REALLY important court decision came a few days before the “martyrdom” of the Emmanuel parents: the High Court’s ruling that the provision of state stipends to married yeshiva students – but not to university students – violates the principle of equality stipulated in the budget foundation law.
The ruling took a shocking a 10 years to deliver but clearly stated that the present economic discrimination in favor of married yeshiva students who receive income should be abolished in the name of equality. As Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote: “The need for income support is identical whether the student is enrolled at an institution of higher education... or a married student at a kollel.”
Given that the state decided to abolish these stipends 10 years ago for university students, there is no reason that married yeshiva students alone should continue to enjoy a state subsidy.
Not surprisingly, Shas leader Eli Yishai has vowed to use the Knesset to override the court, hyperbolically claiming “the High Court ruling is a blow to the spiritual status quo of the nation of Israel” rather seeing it for what it is: a blow to the pockets of family heads who prefer to live off charity and state handouts than dirty their hands with a day’s honest work.
TAKING THE issue to the Knesset is no idle threat on Yishai’s part. Like all bullies, he is scared of stronger partners, as seen by his failure to challenge the Ashkenazi haredi establishment over the anti-Sephardi discrimination (the very raison d’être of Shas’ establishment!) in Emmanuel, but is quick to smell weakness in others.
And as we all know, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is good at talking tough before quickly capitulating. We’ve seen it in his relationship with US President Barack Obama, with the changes in the Gaza Strip blockade policy and, throughout his two terms as premier, in his relationship with the haredi parties.
Netanyahu the economist knows that Israel’s survival is predicated on a healthy economy in which all sectors of the population contribute. A situation in which an increasingly large number of young men fail to join the labor force because they have neither the skills needed in a modern economy due to their “studying” in an educational system that places no value on secular knowledge, nor the incentive to work because of the easy availability of state handouts, is unsustainable.
But Bibi the politician has tied his mast to the whims of the haredi parties. There is no guarantee that he will put the greater good of the country before the narrow interests of Shas and United Torah Judaism when the Knesset votes on the next economic arrangements bill, the supplementary legislation that accompanies the state budget, and a way round is found to continue keeping married haredi men out of the labor market. For if the prime minister couldn’t even find it within himself to issue a fulsome statement of support of the High Court and the rule of law in the face of the petty Emmanuel standoff, then the chances of his standing up to the haredi parties on an issue that really does affect their way of life are slim indeed. And the rest of the country will have to pay for Netanyahu’s weakness.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.