Culture war targets ultra-Orthodox Jews

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 7:55 p.m. MDT

Men participate in a prayer to protest an expected replacement to a law, that exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service.

Associated Press

JERUSALEM — 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.

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