Twelve hours after the intransigence of Avigdor Liberman and his Haredi adversaries over a bill to regulate ultra-Orthodox conscription thwarted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts at coalition-building, Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman held a press conference to justify dooming Israel to another round of elections in September. His central theme was that Netanyahu has surrendered much of Israel’s domestic agenda to the ultra-Orthodox parties at the expense of the Zionist nationalist camp.
“I have nothing against the ultra-Orthodox,” Liberman declared several times during his Tel Aviv appearance on Thursday, but “we’re against a halachic state.” The refusal by Netanyahu and the Haredi parties to pledge to pass the conscription law unchanged was the specific reason he’d refused to join Netanyahu’s planned coalition, he said, but that refusal was also emblematic of the prime minister’s ongoing “capitulation” to ultra-Orthodox coercion. This policy of submission, he claimed, was steadily moving Israel closer to a Jewish theocracy.
Not only were the ultra-Orthodox continuing to evade IDF service, but they were gradually deepening their hold over core aspects of Israeli life, he complained, citing several recent examples of ultra-Orthodox intervention to try to render Israel more Sabbath-observant — including opposition to vital national infrastructure work on Shabbat, a threatened boycott of a factory that works through the weekend, and efforts to shutter mini-markets that stay open on Saturdays.
Liberman is absolutely right, of course, and there were numerous other substantive examples he might have cited.
He didn’t mention, for instance, that you really can’t be born, get married or divorced, or even die in this country without the kosher stamp of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate.
He didn’t mention the preservation of a separate ultra-Orthodox school network that produces generations of graduates untrained in core subjects such as math and English, and the soaring level of state financing for full-time adult yeshivas — study centers that, in accordance with authentic Orthodox Jewish tradition, ought to be the preserve of only the best and the brightest Torah scholars.
He didn’t mention the Israeli “army” in which ultra-Orthodox males do serve — the force of thousands of state-licensed kashrut inspectors, most of whose colossal cost is borne by Israel’s cafes and restaurants. (The state itself also directly employs hundreds of kashrut inspectors; by contrast, Israel’s building sites, where 30 workers have been killed in accidents this year alone, are radically under-supervised, with approximately one government safety inspector per 700 sites.)
He didn’t mention Netanyahu’s casual abrogation two years ago of the Western Wall compromise agreement that would have granted representatives of non-Orthodox Judaism a formal role in the oversight of the pluralistic prayer area to the right of the familiar Kotel area. It was a painstakingly negotiated arrangement that the prime minister ditched under ultra-Orthodox pressure, with drastic, ongoing repercussions for the vital relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Liberman is right, but an opportunistic politician (he maintained close ties for years with Shas’s Aryeh Deri and the influential sages behind United Torah Judaism) whose true goal is to supplant Netanyahu as the leader of the Israeli right is not the man to remake the relationship between Israel and its ultra-Orthodox sector, a task that requires sensitivity, strategic thinking and clarity of purpose.
Even were it to be implemented, the conscription bill to which he tied his fate, and ostensibly over which we are now heading to new elections, will have no significant impact on institutionalized ultra-Orthodox draft evasion. If it became law and its declared quotas were met, perhaps 20 percent of the 30,000 annually eligible ultra-Orthodox males would enlist. Today, the quotas would see approximately 10% enlistment in the community, but even those lower quotas are not being filled.
Legislation that would have an impact, and for which all of Israel cries out, would ensure that the entire ultra-Orthodox community — and the Arab Israeli community, for that matter — shares fairly in the rights and responsibilities of Israeli citizenship. Such legislation, rather than focusing solely on service in the IDF, would establish an array of national service frameworks and programs — everything from teaching assistance to elderly care. There would be a range of options available, and once they were in place it would be mandatory for all young Israelis who are not serving in the IDF to instead serve an equivalent period in one such framework.
Under such an arrangement, nobody would be forcing the ultra-Orthodox community to fully integrate into secular Israeli society; its youngsters would, rather, be able to both serve Israel, and their own communities, in accordance with their religious lifestyle. Rather than being imposed on the community, the frameworks would need to be designed in partnership with it.
If partnership rather than recrimination and political extortion were to gradually become the norm, Israel might be able to make strides, too, in improving ultra-Orthodox education, and then, by direct extension, ultra-Orthodox participation in the work force — again, to the benefit of the Haredi community in particular, and Israel in general.
None of that is about to happen, which stands as an indictment of all of our elected politicians — the unyielding, self-interested ultra-Orthodox politicians (and their rabbinical patrons), whose policies ruthlessly subject their community to inadequate education and relative poverty; their opportunistic antagonists, like Liberman; and the self-evidently indifferent legislators in the middle.
What is about to happen, by contrast, is that Israel will now go to the polls again, and it’s a fair bet that the ultra-Orthodox share of the Knesset will grow again. Liberman scored a few points at his Thursday press conference by citing Netanyahu’s initial choice of August 27 for new elections as just one more illustration of the prime minister’s surrender to the men in black hats. After all, much of secular Israel might be abroad on vacations at that time, while the ultra-Orthodox community would turn out in full force.
But the ultra-Orthodox community will turn out in full force on September 17 as well — with the additional motivation from their rabbinical leadership to maximize their Knesset representation and marginalize their secular adversaries. Liberman “humiliated” us, United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni said Thursday morning. “He tried to extort us,” said his party’s leader, Yaakov Litzman, promising to convey that message to his voters.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties, UTJ and Shas, jumped from 13 seats in 2015 to 16 seats in April. Decrying ultra-Orthodox political power, but failing to offer strategic solutions, Liberman is likely to have engineered their still greater dominance.