Save us from Shas's narrow interests

Labor should take a cue from its 1999 election victory celebration and run on an anti-haredi platform.

rabbi ovadia yosef (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rabbi ovadia yosef
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the main political parties gear up tomorrow in the Knesset for what seems increasingly like elections in November, Labor would do well to consider the potential of the anti-haredi vote. The Rabbinical Court of Appeals' recent despicable decision to nullify the thousands of conversions carried out under the auspices of the state-sponsored Conversion Authority provides yet another example of the pernicious influence of haredi leaders on Israeli life, in which the values of an extreme minority are placed over and above the interests of the wider public. Avigdor Lieberman, one of the country's most talented (in terms of political cunning, not policy) politicians, has already realized this. He's telling Russian-speaking Israelis that his party, Yisael Beiteinu, won't join a future government if Shas is part of the coalition. Whether he'll remain true to his word is another matter, but the fact that he sees an anti-Shas platform as a vote-winner is instructive. Labor should remember the lessons of the past. In 1999, the Likud attempted to court the right-wing strictly Orthodox sector, as "highlighted" by Binyamin Netanyahu's infamous whispered remark to a leading kabbalist that the Left has forgotten what is to be Jewish. But even Rabbi Kadouri's magical amulets failed to prevent Netanyahu from losing the premiership to Ehud Barak. And what was the cry of the Tel Aviv crowd celebrating the Labor victory that night? Not shouts of adulation for Barak and demands for immediate concessions to the Palestinians, but "Rak lo Shas" ("Just not Shas"), referring to the Labor voters' desire not to see Shas ministers sitting around a Labor-led cabinet table. THAT "RAK lo Shas" sentiment is still prevalent today, even if the anti-clericalist Shinui Party has gone the way of its leader Yossi Lapid and departed the scene. Shinui no longer exists, but that is due to the nature of single-issue parties (think of today's Pensioners Party). These parties capture the zeitgeist and the protest vote for one, perhaps two elections, and then run out of steam. In all recent opinion polls, the level of support for all parties, except Kadima and the Pensioners, has remained more-or-less constant, with the main changes being in the movement of Kadima voters to the Likud and the (electoral) demise of the Pensioners. Barak is unlikely to win these swing voters either by promising further concessions to the Palestinians - a Kadima voter planning on switching to the Likud is probably someone who used to vote Likud before Kadima's establishment - or by promising a tougher stance against our Arab neighbors. Why vote for Labor sounding like the Likud if you can vote for the real thing? Barak's real, and only chance, is to seize the middle ground. Labor, traditionally, has stood for territorial compromise and building a fairer society. Most Israelis, even Likud voters, accept that any peace agreement with either the Palestinians or the Syrians will include territorial concessions, and so there are not many new votes for Barak to be won on this issue. WHERE THE Labor leader needs to make his mark, as he did in 1999 with a campaign focused on the old woman in a bed in a hospital corridor, is on the issue of a fairer society. But this time, the focus should be less on the have-nots in society and more on the will-nots: those who will not make a contribution to the defense of the state, those who will not go out to work. This, obviously, is where the anti-haredi vote comes in. There is no need to take an offensive, Lapid-like approach of insulting the haredim. As a sizeable minority within the general Israeli public, haredim are due the same respect and tolerance as other minority groups, such as gays or Israeli Arabs, but they must not be allowed to impose their narrow agenda on the wider public. Accepting for now, although it is hard to do, the shameful refusal of young haredi men to share the security burden of their fellow citizens, Barak must campaign to end the farce of the Tal Law, which has not seen any great increase in young haredi men performing some form of national service. A central plank of Labor's election platform must include a serious program for community service for those who refuse to serve in the IDF, both among haredim, Israeli Arabs and those secular Israelis who try to evade conscription. ON THE economic front, Barak must ironically pledge to maintain one of Netanyahu's main successes as finance minister under Ariel Sharon - the dramatic reduction in child allowances, particularly for large families. While the poor certainly need help from the state, what they do not need is an incentive not to work. The old system of child allowances, in which a large sum (NIS 850 per child from the fifth child on, as compared to NIS 170 for the first two children) not only disproprotianately rewarded large families, who tend to be strictly Orthodox, it created a growing cycle of poverty in which a whole strata of society opted out of the workforce in favor of the yeshiva, placing an ever-growing burden on the ordinary taxpayer. Shas leader Eli Yishai has decided to make reversing the cuts in the child allowances a central plank of his party's campaign; Barak has the chance to pick up the electoral challenge and state that not only will Labor maintain the present level of child allowances, it will not allow the interests of a narrow, self-centered sector of Israeli society take priority over the country's wider interests. The security and the tax burden, as well as that of integrating new immigrants, is there for all of us to share, equally. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post