“The challenge before us is to create a reality where military service in defense of Israel, civilian national service, and the value of work are all important values that are balanced against Torah study to create real equality in carrying the burden.”
The committee is expected to affirm the draft proposal initiated by Lapid and Bennet during coalition negotiations. Bennet announced its basic tenets. For the next three years, yeshiva students will be able to study undisturbed with all state benefits granted until now. From the beginning of 2017, only 1,800 students will be exempt from the draft and will receive more government funding than that currently paid. From then on, only 1,800 of the approximately 7,000 students designated yearly for military service will receive exemptions, while the rest will be expected to choose between military service and national service.
Another leg of the proposal is that during the next four years, any students reaching the age of 22 will be automatically be exempt from army service. Bennett is confident that this will encourage tens of thousands of chareidim to join the workforce. Until now they were precluded from obtaining employment if they did not serve in the army.
Bennet pointed out that, according to his proposals, the state will not force anyone to stop learning. Students not among the 1,800 star students selected annually simply will not receive government support.
Chareidi parties have already insisted they will not cooperate with decrees aimed at decimating the Torah world. Recently, someone told Rav Aharon Leib Steinman that he had voted for Bennett and asked how to atone for it.
“There is no atonement for this!” Rav Steinman told him.
“Will it not help if I support a kollel yungerman?” the person asked.
“That would help if only one yungerman was involved,” Rav Steinman said. “But how can it atone for the other yungaleit the government wants to harm? How can you amend for that?”
At a gathering of thousands of Sanzer chassidim in honor of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz’s yartzeit, the Sanzer Rebbe said that the Torah world would persist despite government cuts.
“Every one of us must sit in the tent of Torah and devote all his strength to Torah,” he said. “There is no doubt that the purpose of all the decrees threatening us is to harm Torah learners. Yet ever since kabolas haTorah Jews have faced difficulties. As the light of Torah increased, so the difficulties opposing its study increased. We must internalize that the more people study Torah, the more its enemies will fight to overcome it. Without doubt, the cuts they wish to impose upon us are instigated solely because they cannot bear to see the power of Torah increasing like an overflowing spring in our time.”
The Rebbe stressed that the Torah world is being put to the test.
“At this time of ikvesa d’meshicha we are being tested from above to see whether we will study Torah in straitened circumstances. We must pay absolutely no attention to the threats trying to interfere with our way of life. Instead, we must wholly accept the yoke of Torah upon ourselves and fortify ourselves to study Torah even in straitened circumstances and suffering, chas veshalom. We must change the concept of what we are used to and make do with little. As we know, perfection in serving Hashem is only achieved by toil, work, and overcoming the yetzer hora. This is man’s supremacy. Who is a powerful person? He who overcomes his evil inclination. Heaven is bringing us to the realization that we have none to rely upon except our Father in heaven.”
In similar vein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevez, Rav Gershon Eidelstein, urged bnei Torah to increase their measure of bitachon to weather the crisis.
“Hashem is all powerful,” he said. “Just as the Torah world has survived until now with His help, so it will continue even if government funding ceases. Hashem has many ways of doing things. The holy yeshivos will continue to persist and flourish from other sources.”
He added that the cutting off Torah funding would be a disaster for the entire country.
“The leaders of the country should realize that the bnei yeshivos provide the zechus for the country to survive,” he said. “This especially applies in our dangerous security situation. Millions of Muslims and enemies seek to destroy us and we have no natural means to protect ourselves. Only the merit of the Torah shields the people living here.”
Meanwhile, the Maariv newspaper revealed that Bennett’s excuse for joining forces with Lapid’s anti-religious party was a lie. During the coalition negotiations, officials of Bennett’s party claimed that he originally tried to create a united bloc with chareidi parties and was turned down. Only then did he decide to unite with Lapid.
“Immediately after the elections, we turned to Deri in order to establish a unified bloc,” his officials said at the time. “We understood that Bibi did not want us in the next government. But Deri turned down the suggestion. What did they expect us to do? We were forced to look out for ourselves. We joined Yair Lapid as a purely technical arrangement. But the chareidi public did not know all this and turned Bennett into an enemy of the Torah.”
Although Shas leader Aryeh Deri vehemently denied this, doubts lingered.
Maariv reported last week that senior sources from Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi affirm that the agreement between Lapid and Bennett was forged three weeks before the elections, not during the coalition negotiations.
During the elections, Bennett vowed to shift the rabbinate more in line with Israel’s secular and religious Zionist populace. Deputy Minister of Religions Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi) announced that under Israel’s new regime, any rabbi refusing to kowtow to the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate will be fired.
“I want the general public, which comprises the majority of those who benefit from religious services, to find an address here,” he said.
“A neighborhood rabbi who does not fulfill his duty properly will be fired,” he added. “Town rabbis who do not heed the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel cannot continue in their posts. There have been town rabbis who refused to acknowledge conversions signed by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. This is inconceivable. I say to such a rabbi: if you want to be a rabbi in the Eidah Hachareidis please go there. There will be no town rabbi in the State of Israel who does not accept the rulings of the Israeli rabbinate.”
“It is important to tell non-Jews and women in particular that conversion is not all that complicated,” he added. “The important thing is that they become part of the Jewish people from a religious perspective as well.”
Dahan also regards it of paramount importance for the Chief Rabbinate to fall into the hands of religious Zionist rabbis.
“Today,” he said, “Israel needs a Chief Rabbi who believes that Israel is the beginning of the flowering of our redemption, who is not ashamed to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and feels connected to the whole people and is receptive to all sectors of the public.”
STRUGGLING WITH THE BUDGET
As Israel’s new Finance Minister, Yair Lapid is working hard to find the country’s elusive billions. This complicated matters when he turned down an invitation to be present at the sale of Israel’s state-owned chometz. Traditionally, the Finance Minister always attends this ceremony. Solving Israel’s fiscal troubles is awarding Lapid less popularity than his election campaign did. He was quick to blame the previous government for the county’s expected deficit of 50 billion shekels ($13.7 billion), which far exceeds the 3 percent of the budget allowed by law.
“Israel has a monstrous deficit, created because instead of responsible economic management, they took out huge loans and had a party,” he said.
Hinting at his war against the Torah world, he emphasized that his vision was “for an economy centered on the working man, what we usually call ‘the middle class.’”
“The important thing,” he said, “is to create an economy in which if you are a working person, things work in your favor; you have the ability to live with dignity, buy an apartment and look ahead to the future. If you do not work, we need to provide you with opportunities for employment and appropriate training. If you can work but you don’t want to, the role of the state is to clarify that such a situation is not worth it.”
Lapid specified the exact sector he was trying to help in the following story about one of his treasury meetings.
“‘I want to talk about Mrs. Cohen,’ I told senior Treasury officials few days ago.
“They paused, surprised.
“We were in a large meeting that dealt, as usual, with trying to close the deficit. The long table was littered with cups of long since chilled coffee, and the big screen was showing yet another infinite column of numbers.
“‘Who is Mrs. Cohen?’ someone at the far end of the table asked.
“‘Ricky Cohen from Chadeira,’ I explained. ‘She is 37, a high school teacher. Her husband has a minor hi-tech job and they make together a little over 20 thousand shekel ($5,540) a month. They own an apartment and they travel abroad every two years, but they have no chance of buying an apartment for any of their three children in the future.’
“A few smiles broke out around me.
“‘We sit here,’ I said, ‘day after day, talking about balancing the budget, but our job is not to balance Excel sheets, but to help Mrs. Cohen.’
“‘We need to help her,’ I continued, ‘because she is helping us. It’s because of people like Ms. Cohen that our state exists. She represents the Israeli middle class, people who get up in the morning, work hard, pay taxes and do not belong to any interest group, but carry the Israeli economy on their backs. What are we doing for her? Do we remember that we are her employees?’
“The smiles were replaced with thoughtful looks.
“‘I want us to hold a special meeting about Mrs. Cohen,’ I said, ‘where each of us will suggest how we, as the Ministry of Finance, can help her. I want structure for her programs and reforms to help her make ends meet, to improve the quality of her life, to lower her cost of living, to make her feel that her tax money really works for her.’”
The rank and file of Israeli society was disgusted at this admission of the locus of Lapid’s concern.
“You’re a disgrace! You try living on NIS 4,500 a month,” one person retorted. “Go back to where you came from, because there you did less damage to the country.”
Lapid’s fictional Ricky Cohen’s earnings place her close to the top 80 percent of Israel’s financial median.
“I congratulate the finance minister who, within two weeks, managed to eradicate poverty and move on to the next group of needy people who make NIS 20,000 per month,” Shas leader Eli Yishai said.
“Lapid should be concerned with the welfare of all Israeli citizens, not just his voters,” he added. “A million poor people, as well as other population groups, cannot be excluded and ignored. That will not solve the problem, it will make it worse.”
One media outlet even dug up a real Ricky Cohen who earns 4,000 shekels monthly as a social worker.
“Finance Minister Lapid, look into my eyes and tell me how we get from here to a new reality in Israel. It’s unacceptable that children come to school hungry.”
Dozens of protesters gathered at Lapid’s home under the slogan, “The rule of the rich robs the poor.”
Lapid responded feebly. “The average salary is NIS 9,509. The average gross salary for a couple is around NIS 20,000. That leaves Ricky and her husband around NIS 14,000 [after taxes], and if they’re paying off a mortgage and raising three children it’s not going to be easy for them. I agree that there are people who are much worse off, but without a strong middle class that pays taxes, how will we help the weak?”
Lapid realizes that curtailing yeshiva funding won’t go far in cutting Israel’s deficit. Treasury officials have decided to raise the missing cash by declaring war against tax evasion, raising taxes on cars leased by companies for employees, slicing about 5 billion shekels off the defense ministry, cutting child welfare by about 50 percent, and reducing Bituach Leumi payments by about 4.5 million shekels.
Other possibilities include annulling billion shekels of tax exemptions, raising sales taxes from 17% to 18%, applying sales tax to fruits and vegetables, and raising taxes on employees’ saving plans. Altogether, it is hoped that this will save up to 30 billion shekels ($8.2 billion) during the next 18 months. Lapid has also decided to formulate a new budget every year instead of every two years, in order to identify deficits in time and come up with immediate solutions.
“Like Moshe, I will do the right thing,” he said. “This will be a long, difficult and unpopular path. I will make the tough decisions because this is what you voters sent me to do.”
Aryeh Deri mocked the ridiculous comparison, pointing out that Moshe Rabeinu was chosen to lead the Jews after he had mercy on a thirsty lamb. This could hardly be said of Lapid who, he said, seems intent on taking from the poor to help the upper middle class.
Indeed, Lapid’s draconian plans for the economy spurred the opposition into convening an emergency meeting in the Knesset this Tuesday. The meeting was stormy.
MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ said Lapid was a coward for failing to show up.
“Finance Minister Yair Lapid is simply a coward,” he said. “He is avoiding parliamentary and democratic discussion, he is afraid to answer the questions of MKs and public representatives. Lapid is trampling the parliamentary norms, preferring [posting comments on] Facebook than to face the Knesset plenum.”
Gafni concluded with the slogan Lapid made famous in his election campaign.
“Where is the money? Where is the money? Why doesn’t he come here and tell us where the money is? Where is the money Lapid?”
Yisroel Eichler of UTJ called for a tax rebellion.
“I call upon all Israeli citizens who don’t earn 20,000 shekels — don’t pay taxes to those who rob and steal your money to help the sector that earns over 20,000 shekels a month. You have every ethical right to not give them taxes. They are robbing us and giving money to people of the upper class.”
Knesset Deputy Chairman Yitzchok Vaknin cut off Eichler in mid-sentence by disconnecting his microphone.
MK Yaakov Margi of Shas chose to attack Bennett who has persistently addressed his chareidi victims as “my chareidi brothers.”
“Do you remember [how he spoke of] ‘my chareidi brothers?’” he said. “I say to you, my brother students, my brothers of the middle class, my poor brothers, my sister Ricky Cohen, what can we do? The public had its say [voting in Lapid and Bennett] and you’re paying for it. There is no one in the government to stop the evil decrees.”
MK Menachem Eliezer Moses took the opportunity to discuss the media’s readiness to besmirch the chareidi public on the basis of flimsy or nil evidence.
“Yesterday, the Yediot Acharonot paper printed a poisonous article by Nochum Barnea who accused the chareidi public of not honoring the victims of the Holocaust,” he said. “This was based on one person saying he had seen a group of people enjoying themselves in a Yerushalayim park on the eve of the Holocaust Day of Remembrance [on Monday night]. The person imagined he saw two hundred chareidi youngsters enjoying a barbecue… An editor of the Kol Yisrael [Broadcasting Authority] went to the place and witnessed something else…”
Yotam Barazani, the editor who went there, had described what happened as follows:
“I received the message about the barbecues at 10:09 PM, and decided I had to see for myself. ‘Such insensitivity! It just cannot be,’ I said to myself. Less than an hour later I was on my way home and decided to stop at the park and see for myself. I even said to myself that if the story was true I would immediately run back to the newsroom and make an item of it on the next news broadcast.
“At 11:05 PM I saw one small portable grill, and I counted 5 or 6 groups, with no more than a total of 35 people. There were about 30 people on the soccer field. As far as I could tell, none of them were chareidim.
“There are two possibilities here,” Barazani continued. “The big barbecue ended right before I got there, or Melamed got carried away. I think the latter is more correct: In the photo he posted there were no more than 13 people at a barbecue.”
“This hatred of fellow Jews truly angers me,” he concluded.
Mozes concluded that it was high time the media stopped inciting against the chareidi public.
During the plenum proceedings, Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein announced that as head of the largest party in the Opposition, Shelly Yachimovich would serve as the Opposition head. She too lambasted Lapid for his twisted fiscal outlook.
For the purpose of this emergency meeting, the Knesset was forced to interrupt its one month vacation that began on the 19th of March and ends on April 21st. Summer vacation is scheduled for three months later on the 28th of July.
Economy or no economy, MKs, at least, are assured of cushy jobs with plenty of perks. Indeed, Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman (head of Yisrael Beiteinu) have recommended that in the face of Israel’s financial woes, MKs should take a voluntary 10% salary cut.