Utterly without shame, bribery convict and tax offender Aryeh Deri has responded to the High Court’s unsurprising determination that his return to ministerial office is “unreasonable in the extreme” by depicting the ruling as a dishonestly motivated assault on the “great revolution” his Shas party has been fostering. And by promising, via any and every means, to evade the court’s effort to protect Israel, and its coffers, from his ministrations.
Hours after Wednesday’s ruling that he must immediately step down or be fired, and having hosted Benjamin Netanyahu for a solidarity and strategy session that also constituted a joint sneering message of defiance to the justices the prime minister is hellbent on neutering, Deri declared: “We’ll continue the great revolution. We’ll continue to represent the poorer echelons, we’ll continue to represent the world of Torah, we’ll continue to protect the State of Israel’s Jewish identity, by all means and all possibilities.”
“When they close the door on us, we’ll get in through the window,” he vowed with his revolutionary fervor. “When they close the window we’ll break through the ceiling, with God’s help.”
Empowered by Netanyahu, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership in the Sephardi Shas and its Ashkenazi counterpart United Torah Judaism have indeed long been engaged in a revolution. It’s not the catastrophic planned judicial overhaul I’m talking about here, but an educational, social and economic revolution of devastating consequence for many of their own voters and for Israel.
And the agreements Shas and UTJ secured in last month’s coalition deals with Netanyahu’s Likud are designed to accelerate the damage. If implemented, indeed, they are guaranteed to deepen the Haredi community’s education and work crisis, condemning much of the country’s fastest-growing population segment to further snowballing poverty, and ultimately threatening the very sustainability of the state.
Abusing their constituency
In their coalition accords, Shas and UTJ negotiated massively expanded funding for their non-state school networks. Not only are the finances and operations of such schools often devoid of effective oversight, with consequent potential for abuse of funds, but the extra funding is to be allocated without an enforced requirement to teach a core curriculum including math, sciences and English.
Similarly, the parties secured increased funding for full-time yeshiva study for Haredi males, and a pledge to widen the already broad exemption that sector of the populace has obtained from the military and any other national service.
In combination, these priorities — presented by Deri and UTJ leader Yitzhak Goldknopf as significant achievements — mean more of their constituents are to be denied the basic education they need to become an effective and fulfilled part of the workforce who are able to provide for their families, and constitute a disincentive for them to even try to do so.
Instead — and this is precisely what the Shas and UTJ strategy intends — many of them will become increasingly dependent on state-funded welfare, and on their political leaders using coalition leverage to keep that welfare funding on stream. Shas, it should be stressed, nevertheless, generally holds to a more clearly Zionist outlook than UTJ, and its voters are far more likely than those of UTJ to perform military service and enter the workforce.
Nobody better recognizes the dangers caused to Israel’s economy by large swaths of the populace receiving a subpar education, and being discouraged from working, than Netanyahu. Only last month, in some of the most spectacularly un-self-aware comments it is possible to conceive, Netanyahu accurately explained in an English-language interview how, as finance minister 20 years ago, he introduced sweeping reforms to the national welfare system, which he said had been widely abused in much of the Arab and Haredi communities.
“In order to put the ‘fat man,’ the public sector, on a diet, I had to cut back Israel’s lavish welfare system, which encouraged people to live on the dole and not to go out and work,” the prime minister specified. At the risk of becoming unpopular, he went on, “I cut child allowances, which in Israel were extraordinary – they’d go up with each successive child; it was leading to demographic and economic collapse. And the same thing was happening in other sectors, the ultra-Orthodox community and so on. They didn’t work. They just had a lot of children which the private sector had to pay for.”
Barely three weeks after that interview, and just a week after he himself tweeted about it, Netanyahu’s Likud signed its coalition agreements with the Haredi parties, providing for a return to the very same counterproductive processes he had recognized and tackled 20 years ago.
Not only is it deeply damaging for much of the Haredi community to be consigned to inferior education, exclusion from national service, reduced prospects of productive employment and a disincentive to try to work, but it is also immensely harmful to the rest of Israel.
When your fastest-growing demographic sector is given a substandard education, your country gradually, inevitably, deteriorates from a successful to a substandard country. (Currently making up some 12.6% of the populace, the Haredi sector is said to be growing twice as fast as the overall population. Indeed, according to Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, a striking 23.7% of Israelis aged 0-4 are Haredi.)
When large swaths of that sector do not share the responsibilities of national service, they retreat from a healthy integration with other Israelis, and this breeds resentment in those who take the strain. When the rest of Israel is also required to increasingly subsidize them (20% of the workforce already pays 92% of the income tax, while the bottom 50% of the population is too poor to pay any income tax at all, according to Ben-David), the resentment and sense of injustice can only deepen, with potentially drastic repercussions. These can include a growing brain drain, widening national disunity, a not-too-distant inability to maintain the strong economy, and ultimately, by extension, a reduced capacity to ensure Israel’s defense.
The high birth rate, low education, widescale avoidance of national service, and relatively low participation in the workforce in much of the Haredi community are not fresh trends, and their implications are not new sources of concern. But the declared agenda of the coalition will exacerbate rather than address them.
The High Court justices ruled that Deri must not hold ministerial office both because of his financial recidivism and for misleading a Jerusalem magistrate’s court when he said, while negotiating a non-custodial sentence for his tax conviction last year, that he would have no further dealings with matters of “public economic interest since he will be distanced from the public sphere.”
In fact, to the terrible detriment of Deri’s own voters and the wider state, the Shas leader’s “great revolution” will go on — whether or not he can find a window to come through, or a ceiling to smash, in order to outflank the court and ministerially direct it.