Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fighting for a Piece of the Pie

A while back I flipped on the radio on my way to work and heard a brief interview with Professor Daniel Hershkovitz, Minister of Science and member of the cabinet from the Mafdal (religious Zionist party). Just as an aside, Professor Hershkovitz is an amazing man - a real combination of Torah and knowledge. He's a rav, a professor, and also a very engaging speaker. But I digress.) Oops, my bad. He's not from the Mafdal (that stands for מפלגת דתי לאומי - the Religious Zionist party). They renamed the party הבית היהודי - the Jewish Home. They're still the Religious Zionist Party, only that's not what they call themselves. And in any case, the name change didn't work. They didn't get any more votes this time than last.
Hershkovitz found himself on the radio fighting for money for Sherut LeUmi. What is Sherut LeUmi? The law in Israel states that every Israeli young person is required to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces. In a deal that was worked out in the early fifties with Ben Gurion, the government exempted religious women who felt that military service violated their religious and spiritual values. (This is a rather complicated issue here in Israel. While there are certainly Orthodox girls who do serve in the IDF, most do not.) Yet, as opposed to most Chareidi women who had no interest in serving the State in any form, religious Zionist young women felt that while they could not serve militarily, the still wanted to contribute to the State in some way. Hence, Sherut LeUmi - national service - was born.
Today, fifteen thousand young people - many women, most religious, but some men and secular women who cannot serve in the IDF for whatever reason (health, educational, emotional, or whatever), serve in Sherut LeUmi. They serve across the country in hospitals, offices, schools, municipalities - you name it, they volunteer and give between a year or two after high school to the country.
Seems like a great program - and it is. Sherut LeUmi girls are passionate, idealistic, dedicated to the State and devoted to their work. They work under umbrella organizations who arrange their housing, working conditions, oversee their programs and supervise their work. They also give them guidance and ensure that they have food to eat and enough money to get some lunch and a bus pass to get to work and back home. It really is a shoestring budget - about 35 million shekel for the year.
You would think that the government would consider this a good deal; 15,000 idealistic young people dedicating a year or more of their lives to the country. (How much would the United States pay for that many volunteers?) You'd think that the Israeli government would consider it a bargain. And yet, there was Professor Hershkovitz on the radio, arguing for the money for Sherut LeUmi. In Israel, even volunteers for the country are political, and because Sherut LeUmi is considered a "religious Zionist" endeavor, it never made its way into the yearly budget. No, every year it's got to be a fight.
The treasury said that the Mafdal - sorry, Bayit Yehudi - should use its discretionary coalition money for Sherut LeUmi. (apparently, joining the government and supporting the Prime Minister comes with perks; money for the pet projects that you like.) Hershkovitz said nothing doing - why should he be stuck with a bill for a project that really serves the entire country, and should really be part of the State budget anyway?
So they played a huge game of budgetary chicken. The treasury didn't send the check, and the year began. The Sherut LeUmi organizations started the year, promising to pay bills with the money that they "knew" would eventually come, but did not. Until things got so bad that the Sherut LeUmi outfits decided to do what everyone else always does to get what you want in Israel: go on strike. Imagine the outrage across Israel if all the office workers, hospital volunteers, school tutors, etc - just didn't show up one day? It's sad - but strikes, even threatened ones - really have an impact here.
Hershkovitz threatened to leave the coalition if the money wasn't forthcoming, and, as the above article notes, "Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, after consulting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, approved the budget due to the national importance of the operation." Isn't that rich? Must be really important if they had to threaten to cancel the program before the government approved the budget!
The best part came when the check finally cleared. Last week's Mekor Rishon - the paper of record for the religious Zionist community - featured this large advertisement.

In this ad, the four major Sherut LeUmi organizations give a big thank-you to Professor Hershkovitz for his hard work securing their budgets, ensuring that they didn't have to go on strike, shut down, and cancel a major national volunteering program. They also thank the head of the coalition, member of Knesset Zev Elkin and others. All of this for making sure that they got the budget they were always supposed to get, everyone knew that they'd get - and that they've been getting for decades.
If so, why the fight? Because here, money is all about politics. The government - the Likud in this case - wanted to force Hershkowitz to fight, and use some of his clout on Sherut LeUmi, knowing that they'd send the check eventually. It gives them leverage when they need him to sign on to something that he doesn't really support, but that they want.
Yet, to me, this entire episode hints at a much deeper, more pervasive problem in Israeli politics that plagues the religious Zionist community: the need to get our "piece of the pie."
By creating separate parties, on the one hand the RZ community gives itself a unique and distinct voice, allowing it to raise issues unique to its constituency. At the same time, we also alienate ourselves from the "broader" society. In a way, we articulate a sense of "otherness" and alienation from the larger Israeli public. So that public says: you have your own needs? You want your slice of the pie? Fine - but you're just going to have to fight for it. That's the way the game is played. You don't get the pie for nothing.
But what if RZ Israelis voted with the larger blocks. What if, instead of having a specifically RZ party, the RZs were members of Likud - voting in Likud and also having a seat at the table. Would we be having this argument now? Would we be fighting for every shekel, or would our seat at the table make those fights unnecessary?
Put another way, are the interests of Religious Zionism better served by creating separate parties, or would we all be better off - not just the larger Israeli public - but the Religious Zionist community as well - by combining forces with Likud and fighting not from the outside, but the inside?