Together with Israel’s Arabs, chareidim are the worst fairing sector in Israel, according to a report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Poverty in Israel leaped from 13.8% to 20.9% (defining poverty as when a combined household earns less than 4,000 shekels [$1,100]) between 1995 and 2010, leaving Israel the poorest of the 34 OECD nations.
According to Professor Momi Dahan, head of the School for Public Policy of the Hebrew University, a principal reason for the increase in poverty was the cutting of social benefits in 2003, which was supposed to lead to increased wealth by encouraging people to work. He noted that high poverty rates are a prime preventive to long-term economic growth.
Lapid admitted that his harshest budget cuts are aimed at the chareidim in order to push them from the beis hamedrash into the workplace.
“I already made cuts for the chareidim…,” he wrote on Facebook. “Israel doesn’t need a culture of allowances, but a culture of work.”
“What are child allowances?” he added. “Child allowances say ‘I have kids but I want someone else to pay.’ Who is paying? Someone else who has kids, who is taking from his kids and giving to others’ kids. The cuts act to push people to the job market.
“Allowances don’t prevent poverty, allowances perpetuate poverty.”
Shas head Aryeh Deri slammed the fact that the budget’s edicts hit hard against Israel’s poor.
“The vast majority of the edicts affect the poor,” he said. “Of course, aside from being chareidi, the chareidi public is also poor and thus chareidim are really hit twice, once by reduction in child support and increase of the VAT sales tax, and secondly with the edicts against chareidi education.”
“On a legal level, I am working together with the UTJ,” he added. “We have hired the services of a prominent law firm and we intend to fight these edicts with legal powers at our disposal. If that doesn’t help, we will go to the High Court.”
On Friday, Deri met Netanyahu after two years of no contact to discuss the financial threats against the chareidi public. He plans to meet with Lapid as well.
Shas and the UTJ succeeded in averting a major cut against chareidi education. Originally, the elementary schools of Shas and UTJ (Hama’ayan and Chinuch Atzmai) were threatened with a 25% budget cut unless they adopted a core educational program conforming to standardized tests in English, math, science, and Hebrew or Arabic. At present they are funded at the level of 75% of the funding received by state schools. The added reduction would have crippled their school systems.
The cut was canceled at the last moment, sparking a violent confrontation between Lapid and Deri. Who was responsible for the cancellation?
Deri claims that the postponement was the result of his negotiations with Education Minister Shai Piron (Yesh Atid). Realizing that Deri’s version of the news was a public relations disaster for him, Lapid insisted that the cancellation had nothing to do with Deri but due to a last minute discussion he had with Piron.
“Education Minister Shai Piron told me there was a problem canceling clause 9-3-A that fully budgets Shas’s El Hama’ayan school system,” Lapid wrote on Facebook. “He explained that until we officially establish a national-chareidi school system, we would be canceling the budget without offering an alternative. We eventually agreed to defer the cut by six months, so that we can form a new [chareidi] school system. Before I went back to the meeting, I asked [Piron] to call Deri and tell him about it, so he won’t hear it from someone else. For a moment, I forgot who I was dealing with. By the time the meeting was over, Deri had spun the story in the media, making it look like we capitulated to his demands.”
“Not only is that a bold-faced lie,” Lapid concluded, “he pretty much closed the book on any future collaboration on our part in matters important to his sector.”
For his part, Deri said that when Piron told him the news, he specifically asked him what he should do. And to this Piron responded, “Nothing. Issue a subdued announcement that there is an understanding between us regarding the budgets of your educational institutions.”
When Deri asked what would happen afterwards, Piron answered, “We’ll see and talk about it. Just announce that there is dialogue between us.”
Actually, Lapid and Piron did not stumble on the illegality of cutting funding to the chareidi schools by chance. Shas and UTJ hired a prestigious law firm to look into the legality of the measure, and Lapid’s shamefaced reversal was due to lawyers pointing out the legal flaw in cutting the school funding without providing an alternative system.
Although Lapid insists that the plan to cut school and yeshiva budgets will take effect in six months once he creates an alternative state-sponsored chareidi system replete with the core curriculum, it will be impossible to accomplish this in such a short time.
In addition to leaving chareidi school budgets untouched, Lapid announced that plans to halve budgets of high school level yeshivos unless they teach the core curriculum have been shelved for the same legal reason. They will continue to receive 60% of regular high school budgets.
Aluf Benn, editor of Haaretz, predicted that Lapid’s first defeat in his confrontation with the chareidi community will not be his last.
“Budgets for the yeshivos and school networks of the Agudas Yisrael and Shas parties will not be cut, despite the fact that they don’t teach the core subjects,” he wrote. “In a few weeks, the ‘draft equality’ initiative to conscript chareidim into the Israel Defense Forces will vanish, and the momentum that brought Lapid and his political partner, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, to power will peter out. It’s time to evaluate the situation.”
Benn continued, “His new promise that the law will be changed in six months and the chareidim will be forced to study the core curriculum sounds like the cries of a kid who gets beaten up by the neighborhood bully and vows to get his big brother involved. The problem, though, lies not only with Lapid’s personality, but with the collapse of the political theory that said if the chareidim were excluded from the coalition and the government would hit them where it hurts, they would abandon their reclusive world and become industrious Israelis, motivated to serve in combat units and happy to pay their taxes.”
Cancellation of the cuts was not the only chareidi victory. Thanks to talks held between Naftali Bennet and Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Asher, and Menachem Elazar Moses of UTJ, a clause denying government child care to parents unless both parents work was mitigated. The chareidi MKs explained to Bennet that such a measure would only result in chareidi women leaving their jobs, the very opposite of what it was meant to achieve. The edict was delayed for a year and a half after which the child care subsidy will be reduced in increments.
In addition, cancellation of reduced city taxes for avreichim has been slowed down. A proposal to reduce the number of teachers trained by Beit Yaakovs by 70%, from 18,000 teachers to 2,500, was also removed from the budget. It will be dealt with by the Education Ministry.
Despite these victories, chareidi MKs reckon that the damage to bnei Torah and Torah institutions due to government edicts will total about a $100 million over the next year and a half. Speaking before the Knesset plenum, Lapid boasted that he cut 450 million shekels from the yeshivos, that schools that do not learn the core curriculum will ultimately receive only 35% of their present budgets, and that he had annulled the 2007 Nahari Law, saving local authorities 400 million shekel. This law required local authorities to contribute to the costs of private educational institutions, in most cases chareidi schools. Lapid said he would use 200 million shekel of the saved funds to integrate chareidim into the workplace.
No one interrupted him. Chareidi MKs have decided that the best policy is to let him blabber on without hindrance.
In view of the dire situation, wealthy Jews worldwide are making plans how to fill the shortfall. A meeting for this purpose is scheduled to take place in Yerushalayim’s Ramada Hotel in about two weeks time. The present goal is to raise between 50 to 100 million dollars.
LAPID’S POPULARITY PLUNGES
Few were immune to the budget’s severe slashes. Survivors included the tourism industry; tourists will remain exempt from paying the punitive VAT tax on their purchases and hotel stays. The IDF is another winner; defense spending was cut by only 3 billion shekels ($840 million) instead of a proposed 4 billion shekels. In tandem with budget cuts, the Finance Ministry hopes to raise an additional 20.5 billion shekels ($5.7 billion) over the next two years through the imposition of new taxes. It will need money desperately because, despite the cuts, the government will actually be spending more than before. Whereas the 2012 budget was set at NIS 365 billion shekels ($102 billion), this year’s budget stands at 388 million shekels ($109 billion) and next year it will rise to 408 billion shekels ($114 billion).
Opposition Leader MK Shelly Yachimovich said the budget was “an unforgivable betrayal” of the middle class, whom Lapid had vowed to protect.
“Never in the history of Israeli politics has there been such a delusional gap between campaign promises and their realization,” she said. “No one casts a ballot believing every promise will be kept, but this is an unforgivable betrayal.”
Over the past two weeks, thousands have protested against Lapid’s financial decrees in Tel Aviv, Yerushalayim, Chaifa, and Ashdod in a series of demonstration dubbed: “To the streets! Take from the tycoons, not the people!” On a smaller scale, this mirrored social justice protests that took place two summers ago when 300,000 Israelis protested rising expenses and a dearth of affordable living accommodations.
“Instead of a murderous budget that will raise taxes and income tax paid by workers, self-employed housewives, and the elderly, the people demand a stop to the free-for-all for tycoons,” organizers of the protests stated.
Revelations that Netanyahu’s household expenses rose from 3 million shekels ($830,000) in 2009 to 4.4 million shekels ($1.2 million) in 2012 added to public resentment, even though the amount includes expenditures on formal events and work-related meetings held on premises. State Comptroller Yosef Shapira asked Netanyahu to explain his request for the installation of a bed on an El Al plane for a five hour flight to London last month, which cost nearly half a million shekels.
Netanyahu’s attorney responded that in light of the findings, his home expenses have been reduced by 15 percent, and by the end of the year they will be reduced by another 15 percent.
A recent poll indicates that 53% of the public are dissatisfied with Lapid’s performance and only 19% are satisfied. Until now, polls indicated that his party would gain 30 seats in a new election. This figure has plunged by almost half; presently, he would get 18 mandates, one mandate less than he got during the elections. As for his hopes to become Israel’s next prime minister, only 10% of the public consider him fit for the job, while Netanyahu, whom he was hoping to oust, gets an approval rating of 52%. This did not stop Lapid from telling the New York Times in an interview that he is still aiming for the premiership, but realizes it will take time.
The strangest thing about Israel’s deficit is that no one knows exactly why it ballooned in the first place. State Comptroller Yosef Shapira announced that he plans to investigate the causes of the 40 billion shekel ($11 billion) deficit.
“Because the organizations and people that were involved in the decision-making processes which led to the deficit are still making important financial decisions, the situation could repeat itself,” his office stated. “Therefore, a thorough examination of all relevant factors is due, so that these things do not recur, and the appropriate lessons can be learned.”
The government is taking steps to cut the power of unions, which harm the economy through aggressive strikes and inflated wages.
Last month, the government weakened El Al’s power by green-lighting the competitive Open Skies deal with European airlines last month. Now, Professor David Gilo, head of the Antitrust Authority, is considering declaring the two companies that operate Israel Chaifa and Ashdod ports as monopolies. Through paralyzing Israeli imports by means of strikes and slowdowns, the port union’s 2,400 workers have increased their salaries to double those of the public sector. Concurrently, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett released a plan to build new loading and unloading platforms at the two ports, which could compete with the existing state-owned companies.
“Today, we made a very important decision to open up competition in our ports; this is a day of history and we have to create more and more competition in all the vital areas in our economy,” Bennet stated. “I think we have a lot of work to do. We have to open up our economy, create competition, break monopolies and not allow unions to monopolize us.”
There is also talk of opening a completely new port.
As part of its anxious efforts to increase government revenue, Israel is considering taxing the dead. In practice, chevra kaddishas never paid property taxes for their cemeteries. This was formalized in the 2010 budget, which exempted them from property tax. Now, the Finance Ministry wants to introduce the tax in the 2013 budget. In response to the chevra kadishas’ claimsthat they will have to pass on the cost to their customers, the Finance Ministry said this could only be done through special legislation.
Ze’ev Rosenberg, director of the Association of Chevra Kadisha Burial Societies in Israel, said chevra kadishas were “overwhelmed by calls from worried citizens.”
“I assume that the Finance Ministry is now going to spin it and say that the chevra kadisha is going to pay the new tax, but that is just because they got cold feet,” he said, referring to the Finance Ministry’s insistence that the average citizen would not have to pay the tax. “It means tax collection applies to the dead, too; unfortunately, the chevra kadisha would have no choice but to ask every family to sign forms indicating that they own and posses the desired burial plot and undertake to pay the property tax until techiyas hameisim.”
NO MONEY TO ENLIST TORAH STUDENTS
Last Thursday evening saw a huge demonstration against the plan to draft thousands of yeshivaleit. Heeding the call of the Eidah Hachareidis, Rav Shmuel Auerbach and others, about 40,000 bnei Torah gathered for a “Protest of the Tens-of-thousands,” as it was dubbed, in front of Yerushalayim’s main recruitment center. Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the rebbeim of Ger, Viznitz, Belz, and other chareidi leaders felt the time was not ripe for such a protest.
Sadly, the peaceful demonstration was marred at its start and finish by a small number of people who attacked police, torched garbage bins, and hurled rocks and bottles, injuring at least ten police officers. Eight people were arrested. Organizers said that the provocateurs were outsiders not connected to the Eidah and that they “condemned any disturbance or violence against the police.”
Rav Yitzchok Tuviah Weiss, Ga’avad of the Eidah Hachareidis, told the huge crowd that the yeshiva draft was worse than the burning of the Talmud in medieval Europe.
“Although the burning of the Talmud was a terrible decree, taking a ben Torah from the beis medrash is many times worse,” he said. “Burnt seforim can be reprinted, but once a ben Torah leaves the beis medrash he cannot be replaced.”
Ra’avad of the Eidah Hachareidis, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, spoke of the need to present a united front.
“Why doesn’t the government threaten to enlist Arabs?” he cried out. “Because they know it’s impossible. We should feel pained that some of us are willing to negotiate about this matter, letting them think there is something to speak about. They threaten to imprison bochurei yeshiva. It won’t help them; bochurim will keep on learning in prison.”
Organizers said that this time they concentrated their energies on Yerushalayim; their next goal is to organize a protest of 100,000 throughout Eretz Yisroel.
The Peri Committee appointed to create a new yeshiva student enlistment law is expected to announce its conclusions at the end of this month. But its plans and proposals are endangered by lack of cash. Israel’s austerity budget includes a cut in the defense budget, leaving little money to train, prepare, educate and provide financial incentives to tens-of-thousands of chareidim joining its ranks. Even funding an avreich for a stint of social service would cost 30,000 shekels.
“The Finance Ministry doesn’t have the funding for all this,” a Treasury representative told the committee.
“We are fighting desperately for every shekel, trying to cut expenses wherever we can,” he added. “Where do we have hundreds of millions of shekels for a plan we don’t even know will work?”
Doubtful whether economic sanctions against yeshivos and bnei Torah will be effective, the committee has considered the application of an old law of Military Service dating back to 1986, which makes refusal to serve punishable by imprisonment. The Likud opposed the measure when it was brought up last year. So far, the committee has decided that yeshiva students will be subject to the same induction law as other citizens and would be considered deserters if they fail to adhere to enlistment protocol. Although such legislation will not necessarily lead to extensive police raids of chareidi neighborhoods, the brand of “deserter” would cause yeshiva students to lose eligibility for property tax discounts and student benefits and would bar them from leaving the country.
An unexpected voice in favor of chareidi opposition to army coercion is that of Uri Avneri, a well-known radical-Leftist who served three terms in the Knesset, famous for visiting Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the siege in the 80s.
“I am against equal bearing of the burden!” he stated. “I oppose chareidim serving in the army for both practical and ethical reasons.
“Ethically speaking, we should acknowledge the uniqueness of the chareidi sector. They are different from everyone else… The rabbis are correct in claiming that after serving in the army, bochurim will be lost and unable to return to the chareidi community.”
He added that an end should be made to outdated obligatory conscription saying that, “The best armies in the world stopped this a long time ago in favor of professional volunteers… It angers me that Yair Lapid and Naftoli Bennett hammer on the topic of conscripting chareidim as if it’s the most important thing in the country, while both understand that nothing will come of it and there are many more important issues for Israel to worry about.
“No government will do it anyway,” he said, “because you cannot force a community to contravene what it holds as paramount. How exactly is this supposed to happen? Will they imprison thousands of avreichim and bnei yeshivos? Will they fill civil and military jails with hundreds-of-thousands of people?”
Hesder and religious-Zionist yeshivos are also concerned about the proposed budget, because it does not differentiate between their institutions and chareidi institutions.The Finance Ministry wants to slash all yeshiva budgets by 40% by cutting 200 million shekels this year and 400 million shekels in 2014, in addition to stopping support for students from overseas.
Eitan Ozri, CEO of the Hesder Yeshivos Organization, wrote an urgent letter to ministers and MKs of Habayit Hayehudi saying that since the beginning of this year, his yeshivos were already receiving 20% less than usual due to the non-authorization of the 2013-14 budget. In May, this was reduced by an additional 20%, leaving only 60% of the original government support.
In general, their fate seems bound with that of the yeshivos.
WILL BENNET SAVE THE KOSEL?
Rosh Chodesh Sivan saw yet another public tefillah of the feminist Women of the Wall organization at the Kosel, replete with tallis and tefillin. This time it was with the backing of a Jerusalem district court, which ruled that their mode of prayer does not contradict “local custom.”Thousands of chareidi women and seminary students came to demonstrate their opposition by means of their overwhelming presence.
The Kosel’s ultimate fateis presently subject to an argument between Bennet, who was appointed to find a compromise, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (head of the Hatnuah party) who has to approve the solution. Livni wrote to Bennet that she hopes he sticks faithfully to the court opinion that WoW’s activities are perfectly legal.
“I am informing you of my principled stand on the matter, before you make any new regulations,” she wrote. “I agree with the court’s ruling and I believe that it coincides with the significant and positive changes made [in recent years] to promote women’s equality, in both the religious and secular societies.”
On Facebook, Bennett responded no less dramatically: “Tzipi Livni just ‘sent’ me a letter essentially saying she won’t allow me to introduce new guidelines at the Western Wall,” he wrote. “Well, she really let me have it and got a headline on Channel 2. Wow! Naturally, because of the holiday, my office was not working and I didn’t receive any letter. This was just media spin.”
However, he said she had hurt chances of reaching a reasonable compromise by behaving like “an elephant in a china shop.”
In a similar feminist spirit, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has adopted the recommendations of a Justice Ministry report that exclusion of women from public places and ceremonies should be considered a criminal offense. Such a law would forbid the exclusion and separation of women at state ceremonies, buses, and health clinics. Separate seating on busses would be banned. It would be illegal to demand modest female dress in religious neighborhoods, for government and public offices to organize separate gender events, and to have mechitzos at public places, even if the local public wants it.
“Determining that by keeping Torah and mitzvos one is doing a criminal act is a very serious and unnecessary step,” MK Yaakov Litzman complained. “The boundaries of tznius that have been accepted throughout the generations have preserved the purity of Am Yisroel and we will continue in the way of the Torah that has been passed down to us.
“All these who preach to us on the subject have a very long way to go in rectifying their ways in preserving the dignity of those who they purport to speak for. Jewish Law does not need any instructions or permits from any authority.”
Another feminist related statute was a draft bill proposed by Yesh Atid and passed by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday. If ratified by the Knesset, it will demand the appointment of at least three women to an eleven member committee that elects dayanim. At present, the committee has ten members. Feminist organizations have lobbied for such a law over the past three years.
While Rav Shlomo Dichovsky of the High Rabbinical Court said he was not opposed to the development, MK Moshe Gafni, a member of the voting committee, blasted the proposal, saying that such a law would contribute to turning Israel into a secular state. Women appointed would most likely be feminist sympathizers who are generally opposed to the aims and ethics of botei din.
“Rav Kook said that if the constituency that votes on chief rabbis was altered, he would ask forgiveness and join with Rav Sonnenfeld, who opposed setting up a chief rabbinate in Israel and appointed a fast day when it happened,” Gafni said. “Rav Kook said one must be moser nefesh for fundamental matters.”
On Monday, the government transferred a number of services to the Religious Services Ministry. These included the conversion authority, which was under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office until now. Also transferred was the National Center for Development of Holy Places, formerly part of the Tourism Ministry. The Religious Services Ministry was also given the legal powers to fight kashrus fraud, supervise sh’mittah, provide kosher food to soldiers, and prevent fraud in Sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzos.
“If Shas was in the government and brought about an expansion of the Ministry of Religious Services’ authority, you can imagine the noise the media would make,” said a Shas official. “But if Bayit Hayehudi instigates it, that’s no problem. But they’ve done our work for us. In a few months we’ll be part of the government for sure. Then we’ll receive an expanded Ministry of Religious Services on a silver platter.”
In the elections, Naftali Bennett promised that his party would enact religious reforms. As Israel’s Religious Services Minister, he announced the first of them on Sunday, beneath a banner bearing the slogan, “Revolution in Religious Services is not a Dream.” His biggest proposal was to promote adoption of the Tzohar Law, which will allow a couple to register for marriage anywhere in Israel and not only in the rabbinate of the area where they reside. This, the ministry, hopes, will increase competition between the rabbinates and improve their services.
“The religious councils will provide the best possible service, and will no longer have a captive audience,” said Deputy Religious Minister Eli Ben-Dahan. “These are brave moves, which haven’t been attempted in this arena for decades. The Religious Services Ministry will make religious services friendly to all citizens, and the reform will bring every Jew closer to the traditions of his grandparents. We are revolutionizing [the religious services].”
The change, which may be implemented in coming weeks, is expected to reduce the number of rabbinates from 133 to 80. However, it will enable people to shop around to find rabbinates less thorough in preventing non-kosher marriages. It is feared that people seeking to marry non-Jews and p’sulei chitun will find rabbinates with registering clerks who are less thorough in checking facts or who are willing to fudge facts.
Chareidi MKs, Meir Porush amongst them, strongly opposed the change.
“The opening of [all] areas for marriage registration will enable the registration of marriages for people who cannot adequately prove their Jewishness, people one may not marry, and non-Jews registering as Jews,” said MK Uri Maklev. “This will result in the religious public, which does not want its children to marry non-Jews, not being able to rely on the marriage registration system.”
“We don’t see the Interior Minister allowing people to get ID documents anywhere in the country and passports are only issued in the place where a person lives,” he added. “One cannot sign up for unemployment or open a file in court except where one lives. If so, why should marriage be registered somewhere else? Reforms, competition, and privatization should be implemented in the finance departments of the government. If only they were! But not where they impact on fundamentals of halachah observance.”
Maklev emphasizes that Torah observance in Israel is under siege. With few allies in the coalition, the Torah public is considered fair game by those who profess to be working for its integration into Israeli society, but would be happier if it ceased to exist, chas veshalom.