Under the terms of the historic agreement signed by Israel founder David Ben-Gurion in 1947, the ultra-Orthodox community had every right to decide for itself when it opened its schools this week. In what would become known as the status quo letter, Ben-Gurion promised the Haredi leadership that he would preserve the autonomy of any educational current.
In principle, he was against the divided school systems in the future Jewish state. But 11 months before its founding, he made the necessary concessions to ensure that Haredi leaders would not take a contradictory position with that of the Zionists in talks with the United Nations.
Five years later, when all other education streams were combined under the new Ministry of Education, Ben-Gurion kept his promise: Chinuch atzmai, independent ultra-orthodox education, stayed out of the system.
Over the years, various governments increased state funding for Haredi schools, including Yitzhak Rabins in 1992, which was equal to their budget allocations. But autonomy remained.
The decision to reopen Sunday’s orthodox boys’ schools (Haredi girls can stay home for now; their education is considered secondary) while other country schools remain closed represents total failure, perhaps final, of the status quo agreement on state and religion.
Haredi’s insistence on ignoring the instructions to block governments and endangering their community and the entire population of Israel, in the further spread of COVID-19 is above all an act of war. There may be an ideological basis: Haredi’s choice to continue teaching the Torah to large groups, even at the risk of public health and life itself. But it would not have happened if the rabbis and their emissaries did not know they could escape with him.
At his press conference Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was extremely honest when he told reporters that we have a limited number of police officers. We do not have the ability to send an officer to every corner of the road, to every ally. There are over 1,000 ultra-Orthodox schools, some very small. Even if the police and local councils were serious in trying to shut them all down, it is extremely doubtful if they can. In addition, many would simply go underground and continue teaching in private apartments.
Of course, Netanyahu did not add that trying to enforce the Haredi schools law would be political suicide for him. United Torah Judaism and perhaps even the Shas would not stay in his government for a day. His base of power as prime minister would disintegrate immediately.
Netanyahu on Saturday night was vulnerable as he has never been since returning to power in 2009. The fragile foundations of his power were exposed for all to see.
Apparently there was no connection between reporters’ questions about the ultra-Orthodox situation and the future of his unclear relationship with another ruling coalition partner, Kahol Lavan. Netanyahu’s response to this was surprisingly optimistic. They were actually working together okay the last few days, he said.
His wretched alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, had never heard of him before. Nor did Netanyahu’s ultra-loyalists have those Likud lawmakers who have attacked Gantz from every microphone available in recent days. But Netanyahu now knows he has no choice but to reach a compromise with Gantz on crucial issues such as the 2021 state budget and the appointment of a new state prosecutor.
Holding an early election now that the entire Israeli public is witnessing how reluctant it is to hold a powerless hostage by a ruthless ultra-Orthodox leadership is unimaginable.
Haredims may be able to do whatever they choose. But Haredi’s tactical victory over the Israeli state could result in a strategic defeat. They may have underlined the prime minister now, but one day Netanyahu will be gone.
Their choice to break away from the rest of Israeli society in such an open way, in the depths of a national crisis, will not be forgotten. Not even when a coronavirus vaccine is made available. In their drunken stupidity of power, rabbis and politicians Haredi have irrevocably tarnished their alliance with the right wing.
This unwavering alliance was Netanyahu during the three blocked elections when he failed to win the majority. It is now aggravating it, in the electoral depths. And other right-wing leaders are terrified he will pull them along with him.
However, it is not just a political package that risks. The 73-year-old ceasefire between the Haredims and the rest of Israeli society is also sinking. The abuse of the ultra-orthodox leadership of the status quo agreement is pushing it to the breaking point. Those who have argued for years that it is a sadly outdated document, irrelevant to life in 21st century Israel, are now brave.
The coronavirus is killing the status quo, and once it dies it will be much easier for Israel’s mainstream, including secular law, to seek the fundamental rights denied by the agreement as the right to civil marriage, for public transport in Shabbat and the right for young Haredi men and women to choose a full education and their common place in Israeli society.
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