United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman’s tongue-in-cheek proposal to amend the Basic Law: The Government has all the elements of a good Jewish joke, but the grinding poverty of his haredi constituency is no laughing matter.
Litzman’s bill proposing that only Israelis who have an academic degree and who have completed IDF service can be eligible to become prime minister of Israel was ostensibly directed at his rival, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.
When Lapid made his widely successful freshman run for the Knesset in 2013 it emerged that, though he had been accepted to a PhD program, the media-personality-turned-politician lacked a bachelor’s degree.
Litzman has made very public his dislike for Lapid, who during his first term in the Knesset as finance minister spearheaded legislation that sought to force Haredi men to perform mandatory military service so that they could be streamlined into the job market. In one instance, Litzman made a show while in the Knesset of wiping the shoulder of his coat with disgust in the place where Lapid had friendlily patted him. Litzman has vowed that his party would never form a coalition with Yesh Atid due to Lapid’s purported hatred of Haredim.
Still, Litzman’s legislative initiative has elements of a Jewish joke. By pointing to Lapid’s lack of an academic degree and by adding IDF service as a prerequisite for prospective prime ministers, Litzman must have known that he would draw attention to his own Haredi constituents who are ideologically opposed to both army service and the sort of free and open intellectual pursuit available in academia.
Litzman was availing himself of an old tactic: self-deprecation as a means of disarming critics. If Litzman’s proposal were taken seriously and ratified, it would prevent him and nearly all other Haredi men from becoming prime minister.
Litzman was also pointing out that the same criticism so often leveled at haredi men – either because they lack an academic degree that could provide them with a high-paying, productive job or because they eschew military service, or both – can also be deployed against Lapid. In effect, Litzman was jokingly pointing out the similarity between his Haredi constituency and Lapid.
But whereas Lapid has ambitions one day of becoming prime minister, no Haredi party would deign to run one of its own as a candidate for premier – at least not until the Messiah comes. In the meantime, Haredi rabbis send people like Litzman to the Knesset solely to look out for the interests of their people. They reject the hubris it takes to run for the premiership, while bragging about their own humility in the face of a God who they believe does not want a Jewish state at this moment in history.
All this might be amusing for Litzman and perhaps even a necessary distraction from the grueling work of a parliamentarian, particularly during a week of night-long filibusters, but the plight of the Haredi populace in Israel is no joke. This is one of the poorest groups in Israel and its poverty is largely self-inflicted by people like Litzman.
If the Haredim’s poverty affected only themselves and if they were the only ones paying the price for devoting their lives to Torah scholarship and a strict adherence to Jewish law, politicians like Lapid would have no quarrels with them, except perhaps as concerned citizens and Jews who want only the best for their fellow citizens.
But the stubborn insistence of the Haredi community’s leaders not to introduce to their schools an educational curriculum that would prepare the next generation for the labor market has implications for all of us.
Higher rates of Haredi poverty means higher social welfare costs. A failure to teach math, science and English means that a new generation will come of age that is less productive and less able to contribute to economic growth and prosperity.
Fewer Haredi men serving in the IDF means more work for those who do defend Israel.
Litzman follows in a long tradition of Jewish humor that utilizes self-mockery as a means of disarming enemies and Litzman did offer a respite from the usual political news. But he should do more than just joke about his voting constituency’s lack of academic training and their skirting of national responsibilities. He should put an end to it.