Sunday, February 23, 2003
It's now all but certain that the next Israeli government will have at its core a coalition of Likud, Shinui and the National Religious Party. Having predicted, in a fit of annoyance, that Shinui didn't want to join any government that would have anyone else as a member, I've been chewing on crow for a few weeks now. (But it was just a fit of annoyance, not a serious prediction - really! Whatever.) But I haven't resolved my quite conflicted feelings about Shinui - and even more so about the NRP.
Part of the conflict is my concern about Tommy Lapid's character. I think he's a grandstander, and I don't like grandstanders. But this bias has led me astray before. It took me a while to warm to Rudy Giuliani because of his obvious outsized ego and his career as a grandstanding prosecutor, but it's clear that Rudy was one of the greatest - possibly the greatest - mayor in New York history. So hopefully I'm similarly wrong about Lapid and I'll warm to him with time. Who knows; anything is possible.
But part of it cuts to the core of what Shinui is. Shinui could be a dramatic force for re-centering Israeli politics, putting the stake through the heart of its dying Socialist past and establishing a new centrist position on the relationship between Jewish law and the Jewish state that keeps Israel free, Jewish and well-integrated. But if it was these things, it would not devote such energy to denigrating entire segments of the population. It would have tried harder to get Meimad - a moderate and modern Orthodox splinter faction that left the NRP to join Labor - to join forces with them as a natural ally. Shinui and Meimad basically agree on religious matters, so it shouldn't have been so difficult, and the addition of a few skullcaps would have made it clear that Shinui was not out to secularize the State but to establish a new, moderate and more unifying religious consensus.
The negative view of Shinui is that it is fundamentally an ethnic and class protest party, the party of the middle- and upper-middle class Ashkenazim who work hard and party hard and don't want spongers taking their tax dollars or religious rules telling them what day of the week they can party. It's seen Shas rip the country apart playing an ethnic and sectarian card, and it wants to play the same card back at them at the same game. It's a game that will only continue to rip Israel apart.
A Likud-Shinui-NRP coalition is the best possible coalition for Israel at this time. But it can only be this if there is a real re-centering of the religious status quo. The haredim have got to serve the state like everyone else and they have got to enter the workforce. This is a fight, fundamentally, with UTJ, not with Sephardim, since overwhelmingly the haredi population in Israel is Ashkenazi. That's why it was so distressing to me to hear that Shinui was saying some weeks ago that they might be willing to sit with UTJ. In any event, the NRP should have no objection to these things, and they have no reason to go to bat for the haredim. The NRP is not supposed to be a sectarian party; it's not supposed to be the party of Orthodox Jews but the party of Judaism. The former is a narrow constituency; the latter pertains to the whole people.
Shas is an enormous problem. If a stable government can be formed without them, that would be a huge benefit for Israel. Shas has corrupted Israel's institutions and has created a fundamental instability in its politics and economy. But Shas' constituents mostly work, mostly serve in the army, mostly pay taxes - they are overwhelmingly not sponging haredim or welfare cases. They are traditionally-minded Sephardi Jews who think they've been treated lousily by the Ashkenazi establishment and want someone to speak for them and their values. That party used to be Likud. For the past 15 years, it's increasingly been Shas. Whoever is going to put a stake through Shas has to woo those voters.
That party should be the NRP. But I can't see how it will be under Effie Eitam's leadership. The NRP once stood for much more than the Land of Israel. It stood for the People of Israel and the State of Israel - for everything about Israel that could be understood Jewishly. They understood themselves to be the guardians of the Jewish character of the State and its people. They were, for that reason, a natural partner in any coalition government. The NRP's obsessive focus on settling the Land over the past thirty years has meant that they missed the enormous opportunity to influence the Jewish character of a whole generation of new Israelis, the children of the Sephardi immigration. Instead, these children - and their children - have been raised by the Lithuanian yeshivot. The end result is that a group of people who support the state, and serve it, and who have mostly moderate religious views have increasingly supported a party dedicated to fundamentalism, the negation of the state and the exemption of Ashkenazi yeshivah students from service.
If Shinui and the NRP ultimately agree that this is all about keeping Shas out and about controlling the budget, I worry that they will fail to drive a stake through Shas, but will invigorate it in opposition. My worries about Effie Eitam's character eclipse any concerns I have about Tommy Lapid's. Eitam is taking the NRP in exactly the wrong direction, trying to turn it into a far-right triumphalist party that wants Jewish law enforced as the law of the land and the entirety of the Land of Israel defended under all circumstances. Eitam's party has historically been far more moderate than he is, and if the NRP is ever to manifest its true strength - based on the number of non-haredi Orthodox Jews in Israel, and the number of traditionally observant Sephardim, it's an easy call that the NRP should be more than twice its current size if it were doing its job right - the NRP has got to move towards the center of where their constituency is. The NRP, not Shas, is Likud's natural partner, but it can only become that if it becomes again the guardian of the Jewish character of the State as a whole, and the people as a whole, and not the guardian of the interests of one group of fervent believers.
My worry is that the NRP will extract concessions that preserve the letter of the law on Jewish matters, thus satisfying the ultra-Orthodox who don't vote for the NRP anyway, but vitiate its spirit, and institutionalize secular contempt for religious norms. And I worry that Shinui will content itself with a long-term tug-of-war with Shas over funds rather than do something about the appalling state of education for Sephardi kids that has driven the growth of Shas schools - just to pick an example. I think that ultimately a fight over nothing but money is a losing battle, for Shinui, Israel and Judaism. It does no one any good to institutionalize a break between the secular and religious populations; what's needed is to integrate them. If Lapid and Eitam push things in that direction, I will applaud their leadership. I'm worried, in spite of many positive signs, that this is not what's coming.
Having written the above, I just read the following piece in the Jerusalem Post that makes many of the same points more clearly and succinctly.