January 29, 2013

So threatened Ohed Shaked, a self-described Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) teacher of citizenship in an open letter to Yair Lapid, as printed in the Israeli daily Yideot Achronot (January 24).

Mr. Shaked expressed the view that Lapid’s success in the recent elections (19 seats) means that he now has a pivotal role to play vis a vis the Hareidi community. Shaked appealed to Lapid’s sense of decency that he showed during the campaign in not attacking key rabbis and leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. He also asserts that the future of the state of Israel is in Lapid’s own hands.

What is Mr. Shaked (and by extension) the Hareidi community most worried about? Two things: 1. Yair Lapid’s call for shivyon b’netel (sharing the burden), which refers to the conscription of the Orthodox into either military or civilian service, like all other Israelis, and 2. The new government’s reordering of budgetary priorities given the massive deficit of $39 billion, $20 billion more than was expected. One of the budget’s large expenses is to the Orthodox community that is estimated to be between $500 million and $1 billion annually. Note: The Reform and Conservative communities receive almost no funds from the government. Lapid is a pluralist and attends occasionally Beit Daniel, the starship Reform synagogue of Tel Aviv, and it is the hope of Israel’s liberal religious streams that official Israeli government discrimination will end.

Mr. Shaked is concerned that military conscription of all Orthodox students would devastate the commitment to Torah learning and practice in the Orthodox world, which they believe sustains the Jewish people and the Jewish state. He understands that there are, however, two categories of religious students – the serious students of Torah (“Torah faithful”) and others. The difficulty is in defining who is “Torah faithful” and who is not. At the very least, Shaked believes that bonafide “Torah faithful” students should be given a pass when it comes to military service.

Mr. Shaked called for a meeting of the minds between Yair Lapid with the second on his party list, Rabbi Shai Peron, and the rabbis of Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats).

Since the election, Shas and United Torah Judaism have created a voting block of 18 seats, hoping to compete with Lapid's Yesh Atid (19 seats). The question is whether the religious parties will be invited by Netanyahu into the ruling coalition in the next Knesset. Netanyahu, if press reports are correct, is leaning towards giving Shas a role in the government instead of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party (Bayit Yehudi), which won 11 seats. Bennett, a young modern orthodox wealthy entrepreneur, represents the settler movement and is categorically against a Palestinian state existing anywhere on land west of the Jordan River.

If PM Netanyahu invites Bennett’s party into the government, he would not need Shas to give him a majority of seats in his coalition. If he invites Shas he would not need Bennett’s Jewish Home Party.

Yair Lapid said immediately after the election that he would push hard in his discussions with Netanyahu for renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority towards reaching a two-state solution, as well as the goal of Orthodox conscription and efforts on behalf of the middle class. Essentially, it seems that Lapid has become the “King-maker” as Bibi strives to piece together a coalition that would be secure enough to rule.

Shas is more open to negotiations with the Palestinians than is Bennett. Should Bibi invite Shas, Lapid would then insist that the Rabbis agree to go forward in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. If Shas does agree, it is likely that Bibi will accommodate the Ultra-Orthodox community somewhat on the issue of “sharing the burden” of military service.

My own view is that at this point in Israel’s history, a two-state solution must be number one on Israel’s agenda (along with concern about Iran’s nuclear development) for Israel’s sake as a Jewish and democratic state. Though there is much resentment towards the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society (they make up 20% of all Israelis) because of the military deferments and the large budgetary expense for their yeshivot and communities, it may be politically necessary to set that issue on the back burner. Perhaps, there will agreement on the goal of a more gradual “sharing the burden.”

The politics of coalition building may avert Mr. Shaked’s veiled threat of a Milchemet Achim, (war between brethren) while also averting the next war with the Palestinians.

That would be a win-win!

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