Culture war in Israel targets ultra-Orthodox Jews

JERUSALEM (AP) — A cultural war has erupted between Israel’s rising political star and his ultra-Orthodox rivals.

Newly minted Finance Minister Yair Lapid, hugely popular for opposing the long-standing preferential treatment enjoyed by the religious minority, is moving swiftly to slash state handouts to large families, compel lifelong seminary students to work and join the army, and remove funding for schools that don’t teach math, science and English.

The religious — labeled “parasites” by one Lapid emissary this week — are crying foul. But they appear helpless, at least in the short run, to stop Lapid from pressing his agenda.

For most of the last three decades, the country’s small ultra-Orthodox minority sat in governing coalitions, securing vast budgets for religious schools and automatic exemptions from mandatory military service for tens of thousands of young men in full-time religious studies.

Tapping into widespread resentment over these expensive perks, Lapid made a strong showing in January elections. His new Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party finished second in the voting, turning him into the newest star of Israeli politics and propelling him to a senior position in the governing coalition.

The religious parties, meanwhile, were pushed into the opposition.

Lapid, facing a yawning deficit, has moved quickly to drastically slash budgets favoring the ultra-Orthodox.

“I say, let there be war,” Lapid said in a speech Wednesday.

According to a draft of planned reforms viewed by The Associated Press, the Finance Ministry has proposed cutting in half government subsidies to religious schools that do not teach a core curriculum including math, science and English, and boosting funding for schools that do. It also seeks to allow subsidies for child day care only if both parents work — an effort to entice ultra-Orthodox men who study religious texts full time to join the job market.

A parliamentary committee headed by Yesh Atid Cabinet Minister Yaakov Peri also proposes cutting 30 percent of funding to ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries and introducing legislation to end most military draft exemptions, Israeli media reported this week.

A spokesman for Peri declined comment, and Boaz Stembler, spokesman of the Finance Ministry, said the draft budget proposal is not final.

Lapid, whose late father led a secular-rights party a decade ago, has said the benefits the ultra-Orthodox have accumulated are unsustainable.

“If hundreds of thousands of healthy people do not work, and live on pensions arranged for them by means of immoral political agreements, then we have sold the interests of the working man, and we must change this,” Lapid told a Tel Aviv conference this week.

Lapid sparred with ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni during a budget debate on Monday, accusing Gafni, who headed the parliament’s finance committee in the previous government, of causing the huge deficit.

“You are no longer chairman of the finance committee, because we are fed up with taking orders from you,” Lapid said.

Gafni criticized Lapid for issuing statements on Facebook on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, when religious Jews refrain from working and using the Internet. Government officials, even those who are not religious, have long refrained from making public statements on the sabbath.

“I don’t tell you what to do on the sabbath and you don’t tell me what to do on the sabbath,” Lapid replied.

He then accused the ultra-Orthodox of encouraging large birth rates in order to take advantage of state child subsidies.

“The body that is responsible for funding children is called their parents,” he said.

Lapid’s deputy, Mickey Levy, appeared on an ultra-Orthodox radio station on Wednesday in hopes of smoothing over relations with the religious. But when the interview became tense, Levy called ultra-Orthodox Jews “parasites.”

Levy immediately apologized and said he had suffered a slip of the tongue in a heated moment.

Israel’s mainstream media has largely supported Lapid, a former newspaper columnist and TV talk show host.

“How long have we waited for a finance minister in the Israeli government to stand up and tell those dignified parliament members that they no longer hold the reins to the state of Israel,” Yael Paz-Melamed wrote in the daily Maariv. A Haaretz editorial cartoon depicted ultra-Orthodox lawmakers bandaged and bruised from the political browbeating.

Religious lawmakers accused Lapid of inciting against them.

“Since the January elections, new politics have brought unprecedented displays of hatred and polarization,” Arieh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Thursday. “As elected public officials, it is our duty to unite the nation, not divide it.”

For now, however, the tide seems to have turned against the religious.

In recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime ally of the religious, gave preliminary support to a plan to break the Orthodox monopoly at the Western Wall, said Benjamin Rutland, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body drafting the plan.

The proposal calls for building a section for mixed gender prayers. Under Orthodox customs, men and women pray separately.

On Thursday, a Jerusalem court ruled that police should stop arresting members of a liberal women’s Jewish prayer group for praying at the wall wearing religious garb that Orthodox Judaism permits for men only.

The ultra-Orthodox have shown signs of bowing to the pressure. A front-page notice published in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman called on religious studies students to cooperate with military draft notices and report to draft centers, but not to sign any commitments to military service while negotiations are under way.

Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the ultra-Orthodox seem doomed in the short term. “They lost a lot of power and a lot of influence because they are not in the government anymore,” he said.

But in the long run, he said the ultra-Orthodox will likely bounce back as they figure out a way to work with Lapid, who sees himself as a future prime minister. He also said the hostile rhetoric against the religious could backfire if the atmosphere turns too toxic.

Meir Porush, a prominent ultra-Orthodox politician, predicted that Yesh Atid would suffer the same fate as Shinui, the secular-rights party led by Lapid’s father, Joseph, a decade ago. Shinui captured 15 parliamentary seats in 2003 elections, making it one of the largest factions in parliament, only to flame out within three years.

“Shinui had 15 seats and disappeared after one term,” Porush told Army Radio. “I think the same might be for Yair because there is no way that the hatred between religious and secular can be maintained for a long time.”

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