Israel Vote Sharpens Debate Over Orthodox Sway Jan 25, 2013 15:08:44 GMT -5
Post by shira on Jan 25, 2013 15:08:44 GMT -5
Israel Vote Sharpens Debate Over Orthodox Sway
By CHARLES LEVINSON and JOSH MITNICK
TEL AVIV—This week's election outcome is bringing a long-divisive issue to the forefront of Israel's political agenda: middle-class frustration with the privileges and subsidies enjoyed by ultraorthodox Israelis.
Orthodox election officials tally votes at the Knesset Thursday. The Yesh Atid party, which wants to cut religious citizens' benefits, came in second.
The change was prompted by the surprisingly strong poll results of former talk-show host Yair Lapid, whose new party drew legions of voters by tapping into rising discontent over high prices, stagnant wages, growing wealth inequality and limited upward mobility.
Moran Shanni, a 27-year-old attorney, was typical of the sort of voter who swung her support to Mr. Lapid from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Everybody needs to share the burden, the Haredim included," Ms. Shanni said, after casting her ballot. She used the Hebrew word for ultraorthodox, Judaism's most rigid and insular adherents, often characterized by their long side curls, black hats and overcoats, and strict segregation of men and women.
Such sentiments thrust Mr. Lapid's Yesh Atid, or There is a Future party, into second place with 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and made him a likely crucial part to any coalition Mr. Netanyahu tries to form. Mr. Lapid has made curtailing ultraorthodox benefits a condition of his participation.
Many Israelis say they are growing fed up with the generous housing and other living benefits doled out to ultraorthodox Jews, who represent about 10% of this country of 7.7 million people and whose high birthrate suggests that will grow.
Secular Israelis' frustrations are compounded by the 54,000 students among them who would be serving in the army alongside other Israelis if they weren't granted deferments to study in state-funded yeshivas. A vast majority of Israelis support mandatory conscription for yeshiva students, surveys show.
About 1,000 ultraorthodox soldiers serve in the military today, according to Hiddush, an Israeli think tank focused on the relationship between organized religion and state.
The politics surrounding the ultraorthodox have become more controversial as ever more of them seek exemptions from the military, in the belief that Torah study rather than armed battle will ultimately save the Jewish people. Many ultraorthodox also fear military service will hasten assimilation into secular society.
Court filings in a Supreme Court case this month in which Israel's high court ruled that the government must cease paying subsidies to those 54,000 offered a glimpse into the state's largess.
A 28-year-old married father of three studying in ultraorthodox seminary, for example, receives about $1,200 per month in subsidies, say court filings.
Special treatment for the ultraorthodox began as part of a deal cut by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. He agreed to grant 400 Torah students military exemptions.
That ceiling remained in place until 1977, when Menachem Begin defeated the Labor Party for the first time, owing in part to support from religious voters who felt marginalized by Labor's secular elite. Mr. Begin lifted the 400-student ceiling.
In the years that followed, as Labor and Likud battled for power, ultraorthodox parties emerged as reliable kingmakers, willing to partner with right or left. Their price was usually added benefits for their religious constituents, who tended to be poor with large families.
As benefits swelled, and more ultraorthodox remained in study to avoid the military, their workforce participation fell. When Mr. Begin took power, 75% of ultraorthodox men had jobs. Today that number is around 38%.
"The draft is a touchstone issue because…the army is such a deeply ingrained part of society," said Joel Katz, editor of Religion and State in Israel, a website. "If you don't go into the workforce, you don't contribute income tax, you don't help the economy, you don't pay to feed your family."
In 2011 middle-class secular Israelis took to the streets to protest high rentat pricces in Tel Aviv, which according to a government report, surged 30% in real terms from 2007 to 2011. Nobody blames the ultraorthodox directly for this but the issue helped to sharpen the debate.
Mr. Netanyahu's government pledged to boost subsidies for low-income housing. But Housing Minister Ariel Attias, a member of the ultraorthodox Shas party, set the criteria for who can receive subsidized housing to favor long-married couples, which tends to benefit religious families who wed at a young age.
Even before the new rules went into effect, ultraorthodox Jews received 64% of subsidized housing units in Israel, according to a 2009 study by Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily newspaper.
A Shas spokesman disputed those figures. He also dismissed claims that the party's ministers had biased the rules to benefit ultraorthodox families. He said the criteria were based strictly on need.
If Israel doesn't integrate the country's ultraorthodox into the workforce, the military and society, what is a political nuisance today could become an existential threat in the next generation, many local policy makers say.
According to figures compiled by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the ultraorthodox will make up anywhere between a 25% and 40% of Israel's population by 2059 due to their higher birthrate.
Add Arabs, another population with high birth and low employment rates, and the percentage of Israelis who are Jewish and not ultraorthodox will drop to between 37% and 58%, according to the report.
One-fourth of first-graders in Israel are already ultraorthodox, say government statistics. Growth rate in ultraorthodox schools is 39 times higher than for state-run secular schools.
The government's efforts to draft a new law dealing with ultraorthodox service in the military last summer failed, due in part to religious parties sway and strong historical political ties to Mr. Netanyahu, who has been reticent to alienate them.
Before the government takes on that issue or other big socio-economic reforms, its going to have to push through a budget austerity package that saves 15 to 20 billion shekels.
Last year Israel's budget deficit was more than twice what was planned, and this year the government is facing a shortfall defict of 40 billion shekels.
Mr. Lapid favors cutting benefits to the ultraorthodox to help make up the shortfall.
Said Avi Ben Bassat, a former finance ministry director general and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute: "The next year isn't going to fun.''
Write to Charles Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 25, 2013, on page A8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Israel i Vote Sharpens Debate Over Orthodox Sway.