The sharp rise in the number of chareidi votes can be credited — or debited — to the outgoing government
“ATthe moment of truth,” the chareidi parties’ election slogan said, “we are all chareidim.”
That slogan, it turns out, is rather accurate. Despite all the internal tensions that threatened to tear the United Torah Judaism party in two; despite vociferous complaints about lack of representation for certain communities in the chareidi sector; despite the increased appeal of the National Religious party — when zero hour arrived, a resounding majority of chareidi voters suppressed their grumbling and voted for United Torah Judaism or Shas.
Last week’s chareidi victory cannot be attributed to any campaign guru or PR whiz. This result reflects a much deeper reality. In recent years, Israeli politics has adopted for itself the word “gevald” to describe the scare campaigns on the eve of elections, when politicians rally their bases with the message “if you don’t vote, things will be terrible.” In the case of the chareidi parties, that “gevald” was justified.
The sharp rise in the number of chareidi votes can be credited — or debited — to the outgoing government. The actions of this government prompted the average, even lukewarm chareidi voter to overcome his misgivings and to choose a government in which chareidim can join the reigning coalition.
For average chareidim, this was not just a political game; they knew their votes would have a direct bearing on their economic reality.
The invitation to join the coalition is nothing new for the chareidi parties. They were members of almost every Israeli coalition since the 1980s, to the extent that they became a nearly integral part of the government.
Throughout these times, the chareidi representatives conducted truly admirable shtadlanus. They served as stewards of the interior and housing ministries and were influential members of the Knesset Finance Committee, thus helping chareidi voters obtain coalition funds and other forms of support.
It is not for naught that we chose the term shtadlanus, because in a certain sense, this is the most serious chareidi political problem. Shtadlanus. Throughout these years, the chareidi political activists and representatives have done wonderful work. They obtained significant budget and welfare allocations for the Torah world.
But it was all shtadlanus. Meaning, the money came via coalition agreements, pleas, threats, efforts, and indirect budget allocations. Through the back door, if you will — as devoted public servants lobbying the truly powerful to grant favors to an oppressed minority. Favors were certainly granted, but as long as they were seen as “handouts” and “favors,” the inherent disparities and discrimination remained part of the government’s fundamental structure.
And that is the weak link of Israel’s chareidi politics.
The problem with this state of affairs came to the fore each time Israel’s political machinations left the chareidim on the opposition benches. The chareidi sector suffered a significant financial crisis in 2003, when the Sharon government cut yeshivah budgets and child allocations; and in 2013, when the Netanyahu government further cut funding to the chareidim.
It happened again this past year, when the chareidim, for the first time in nearly a decade, spent a short time on the opposition benches. This past year was a short and frightening lesson for every chareidi. It taught us that just a short absence of the chareidi parties from the Knesset majority can lead to the outright trampling of an entire sector’s rights.
Yes, religious hatred is an issue, and it certainly was at play here. But there is a more basic problem: the chareidi sector has always received its rights and benefits via shtadlanus and case-by-case solutions. Every allocation has to be negotiated anew, every right has to be discussed and explained and justified. When the shtadlanim are in the opposition, there is no one to lobby for the sector, as last year’s dismal results demonstrate.
This brief lesson is what galvanized hundreds of thousands of chareidim to the ballot box. It was a clear understanding that even if there are complaints with the current chareidi representation — and there are — we still could not abandon the playing field. And so we got the happy result of nearly two minyanim of chareidi representatives in the next Knesset.
The coming days are critical. As the coalition negotiations get into high gear, it’s time to sound the warning and stop this cycle once and for all.
The chareidi public cannot afford to perpetuate this cycle. We cannot permit an ongoing dynamic whereby in the coming years, the chareidi representatives will try once again to achieve far-reaching gains, only so that in a few years, a less favorable political constellation will gain power and turn back the clock on all their work.
The next term must bring to an end of the era of shtadlanus, and the beginning of a new era of systematic, structured planning, with a long-term strategy — not only for the benefit of the chareidi sector, but for the benefit of the entire State of Israel.
Demographic projections demonstrate that the chareidi society is the biggest opportunity that the State of Israel has. Political actors and bureaucrats, however, have not yet internalized that fact. Currently, every fourth child in kitah alef (first grade) in Israel is chareidi. If we do not make systematic plans for what will eventually be a quarter of the population, everyone will suffer.
When we talk about the “evil decrees” of the outgoing government, we usually refer to a few matters that, with all the pain involved, are relatively marginal. High taxes on disposable goods and sugary drinks, even threats to the kosher phone system — these matters can be solved with the right shtadlanus.
Consider, however, two systemic decrees passed by the outgoing government: stripping away day care subsidies from children whose fathers do not work and retraction of housing allocations. In both cases, these are serious systemic failures that harm the economy no less than serving as a source of angst for the chareidi community.
When the finance minister of Israel prevents thousands of chareidi mothers from enrolling their children in day care centers, he is de facto preventing these women from joining the labor force. Not only does he harm a chareidi interest, he also works against the national interest!
The same is true when the housing minister retracts an allocation for thousands of housing units in western Kiryat Gat; not only is he worsening the general housing crisis, he also distances thousands of chareidim from gainful employment options close to home.
Years ago, we at the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs wrote a position paper that proved the critical nature of these allocations — not only for the chareidi sector, but for the benefit of the future of the Israeli economy. Ultimately, the Institute’s position paper was submitted in an appeal that managed to halt the underhanded opportunism.
These are just two examples; there are many more. Clearly the time has come for chareidi activists and political representatives to stop thinking along the lines of shtadlanus. The call of the hour is to plan a far-reaching systematic strategy — and to anchor these issues in official, permanent government policy, so that our sector will not require constant battling in order to ensure that a chareidi citizen can get what he rightfully deserves.
Even as chareidim celebrate the election results, there’s also a burning feeling that this is our chance to halt this Sisyphean loop: When the government is secular, it actively harms the chareidi sector, and when the chareidim are in the coalition, they must return to square one and fight for their voters’ most basic rights.
The time has come for all political actors — whether they wear a black yarmulke, colorful kippah, or no head covering at all — to take a good hard look at the State of Israel of today and of tomorrow, and to realize that the time has come to lay the track for the train leading to Israel 2050: strategic plans for chareidi society on all core issues. Because plans that respect the values of chareidim while providing them with socioeconomic solutions will ultimately benefit the entire population.
Consider, for example, a most critical issue: integration of chareidi women into the labor force. We at the Haredi Institute have developed a solution that will serve all sides, allowing the chareidi sector to achieve economic growth without having to forfeit its principles or alter its character.
These plans are meant to resolve the shortfall of high-tech workers in Israel, using professional semi-academic training courses that would facilitate high wages for chareidi women, and which can be studied within the chareidi seminaries, without any need to attend coeducational university classes. We’ve collaborated with some of the most prestigious and demanding employers in Israel’s high-tech industry to develop these plans, and have even implemented a pilot program that was a resounding success.
Unfortunately, the finance minister refused to adopt this plan, despite every indicator that it would achieve important goals. With a new political climate come new opportunities, and this is the sort of strategic planning that our chareidi politicians should adopt. They cannot suffice with addressing whatever burning issue has cropped up under their watch; rather, they must also work toward long-term, realistic solutions for our growing public.
In contrast to the “bogeyman” or “leach” stereotype employed to characterize chareidim, the truth is that Israel’s chareidi sector does not shirk responsibility. With dialogue and strategic thinking, we can find solutions for all of the core issues — education, higher education, housing, and welfare — solutions that generate value to the Israeli public while respecting and upholding the values of chareidi society.
Now, more than ever, is the time. Let us take the opportunity while we have it.
Eli Paley is the publisher of Mishpacha Group and the chairman and founder of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 935.
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