The upcoming Israeli election, scheduled for the 22nd, has Jews, observers, and government officials all over the world nervous. Polls suggest that the ultra-right wing is projected to be given a significant boost, in particular the new radical Habayit Hayehui party and its young charismatic leader Naftali Bennett. But Rabbi Dov Lipman, the top activist for the new left-of-center Yesh Atid party and close confidant of its leader Yair Lapid, says his boss is optimistic about the future of Israel. Lipman told me that Lapid has “been able to generate tremendous hope,” especially among Israel’s progressive youth, and can make a difference in moving Israeli society forward.
Lipman, an oleh (immigrant) from Silver Springs, Maryland, moved to Israel in 2004 with his wife and four children. He rose to national attention for his work in combating extremism in Beit Shemesh and speaking on behalf of moderate Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who seek greater involvement in sharing the national responsibilities and joining the workforce. His passion for pragmatic and practical progress in unifying the religious and secular sectors of society is admirable, and I expect him and Lapid to be on the Israeli political scene for many years to come. Below is the transcript of a recent conversation I had with Rabbi Lipman where he tells me the story of his journey to Yesh Atid what Israeli 26 year olds are thinking, and why Yair Lapid is optimistic.
FPB: You were originally with Am Shalem, and now you’re with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid. Tell me about your journey, how you ended up with Yesh Atid.
DL: Politically, I wasn’t very active last time, but voted Likud without passion. It was for lack of a better option. Essentially, over the last few years we’ve seen our city, I live in Beit Shemesh, almost in a systematic way be destroyed on a certain level by the Israeli political system. The Shas housing minister, the Shas interior minister, the Shas mayor, and the Degel HaTorah city council representative in charge of the local housing, essentially ganged up in a systematic manner and determined the future of our city based on constructing new housing, for the most part, just for the ultra-Orthodox community. That is one track that is basically taking place. What that did was enable extremists, and the average ultra-Orthodox person is not extreme in terms of actions that he’ll take towards other people, to feel empowered because they started defining our city as ultra-Orthodox. Then they started flexing their muscles and initiated all the issues that became internationally known in Beit Shemesh. I was very much in the mix to combat that. That’s one issue.
The other track though, is I myself studied in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and very much still identify with the overall dedication to Torah study and mitzvah observance. But, I’ve noticed over the years here that the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is an aberration from what it always has been in terms of commitment to work. Then there is the commitment to being somewhat worldly and familiar with the wisdom of the world, of which they have become completely isolated from, along with not serving in the army. I actually had to pull my son out of the haredi system so he could have Torah together with general studies, so he could serve in the army, and so he could be a proud upstanding religious Jew without feeling like he’s a second class citizen. But, it made me realize the depth of the problem that we have here and in terms of the system, even just over the next 8-10 years. The ultra-Orthodox community is reproducing at an average of 8-10 children per family and from a base level, even economically; the system can’t work where joining the work force is considered the wrong thing. I also feel it’s wrong, I don’t feel that’s what Torah was ever about. I was always on the lookout for some opportunity to express that, do something about it, but it’s not very simple because it’s a close knit community, very highly controlled, and there’s very little you can do.
When I saw Haim Amsalem on the horizon about two years ago, I saw his message and I was like, “wow, there is someone in the ultra-Orthodox world talking about making changes!” I latched on to him and we became very close over time, to the point where he was talking about a very high spot for me on his list for the Knesset, which was not in my original thought for getting involved. He was talking about building this amazing political party with the religious and secular working together, and men and women of all backgrounds, it’s called Am Shalem. I really thought that was my home and that that was where I wanted to be. Unfortunately, he sort of veered from that and decided to create a small Shas alternative, which I think is very important for Israel, but it wasn’t for me as an Ashkenazi and American. The truth is many other activists, the Ethiopian activists and religious Zionist activists left at the same time. It wasn’t a difficult break up. A Shas alternative just wasn’t something we could really contribute to. So I was really in a situation where I didn’t know what to do politically. What could I do for Beit Shemesh? The Likud over the last few years really abandoned Beit Shemesh and I felt they really abandoned their values. I know it’s a parliamentary system and coalitions are coalitions, but I think the caving to Shas and Degel HaTorah at the expense of a city and so many voters wasn’t right. I realized that the party I had relied on [Am Shalem] wasn’t really an option either for our city, which was relying on the next election.
One lesson that I learned from the whole thing in Beit Shemesh was the power of unity. The power of working together with people that I might not agree with about everything, but being able to find things we can agree on. During the anti-extremist rallies in Beit Shemesh, we went to the press with the story of Naama Margolese, and all of a sudden two days later I had sitting around my dinner table people who I religiously don’t agree with, politically on the Palestinian issue that I don’t agree with, but we all agreed that what was going on in Beit Shemesh wasn’t right. We planned an incredible rally with thousands of people from all over the country. I said to myself, that’s where I want to go. I want to go in a direction where I’m breaking out of my little comfort zone and working together with many other people.
Then I started learning about Yair and was really drawn to him on many levels, specifically his call to work together with the religious community. He’s very much a secular icon of sorts, and he was saying it was time to stop focusing on our own sectors and it was time for us to work together. That really spoke to me. I made contact and reached out, asking if we could open a branch in Beit Shemesh. That was my main focus, that we should have a national address on the Knesset level. And, one thing lead to another and a few months ago he offered me a spot on his Knesset list.
FPB: What number are you?
FPB: One of the things I think people find most attractive is Yair’s intransigence to partnering with politicians that he’s deemed corrupted or recycled. People like Tzipi Livni, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Olmert. But given the coalition necessity in Israeli politics, is he going to be willing to join a coalition with any of these individuals or their parties? Otherwise, he might not be able to impact politics in as meaningful a way as people are hoping.
DL: So first of all, your analysis is very much correct, and certainly for the English speaking community. I think people really applauded and are excited for a party with all new faces. One of the problems we have in Israel is it’s the same names over and over again and there is no opportunity even for someone new to really come in and work the system and get to a place of any kind influence. So it’s very exciting and he chose a fantastic list of very successful people in many areas who now decided they want to make a difference.
Yair has made it very clear that we are very much an agenda driven party. Meaning, we are not formed to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu or crown a new prime minister. We were formed to be able to get very important things done within Israeli society. So when we analyze the day after the elections and whether we are going to join a coalition, it is very much dependent on the prime minister’s willingness to move forward with our agenda. So, just to give you an example, you know most people are reading the political landscape and they say the natural coalition partners for Netanyahu are [Naftali] Bennett, and the haredi parties. From our perspective that’s catastrophic on many levels. We are very realistic by the way, we aren’t trying to find some way where he isn’t the prime minister, the polls say he’s going to win and we have to work with what we have. While in the past I think people thought Netanyahu was just trying to find ways to stay in office, I think in this term he’s at a point where he wants to move things forward in society and we’re the natural partners for that. Labor already announced they aren’t joining a Netanyahu government, and most analysts say that Livni’s only interest is to return as foreign minister, and that’s not really something that seems to be in the cards. Obviously, if we join a coalition there will be ministries, but we’re not making demands about ministries, we’re making demands about agenda items that coincide with Likud’s official agenda. We talk about equality and national service, we talk about housing reform, electoral reform, education reform, and we have very specific plans. It could be that we have to give a little and they give a little, but we’re waiting for our prime minister to say “yes, we would like to move forward with these agenda items,” then there’s no question that we would join a coalition.
Most people are studying the landscape and actually view Yesh Atid, and I think it’s one of the reason’s we’ve actually grown in the polls even over the last week, that there’s actually the possibility of forming a coalition either without Shas completely, or without them having influence that they’ve had of late. And that to people is very exciting because you can actually get things done. So, we would absolutely join a coalition assuming that we can move forward in terms of the agenda.
FPB: What’s you’re general take on what Israeli society is feeling right now? What is the average 26 year old thinking about?
DL: They’re feeling that they have no hope in terms of owning a home. Assuming they are thinking ahead, they realize that the system in which the ultra-Orthodox communities don’t join the work force or army is flawed. It’s less a fairness or Zionistic feel and more in terms of the economic consequence of them not working and that something has to be done to deal with it. Most aren’t thinking very much about the Palestinian issue at all in terms of a burning issue. It’s very much more in the home and the economy and long term, and the awareness that middle class families who are working still struggle to finish the month. That’s what’s on people’s minds and that’s what I see everywhere I go.
Part of Bennett’s rise is his statement that there isn’t going to be two states for two peoples, but he doesn’t really analyze the ramifications. Nonetheless, people buy in to that because he says “hey let’s move on from this Palestinian issue, or ignore it, and let’s focus on mostly internal issues,” which from my perspective is highly irresponsible.
FPB: I think you’re totally right about Bennett, but how would Yair handle the Palestinian issue?
DL: Yair gave a speech in Ariel where he laid out exactly what our initiative is and he says very clearly we’re not coming from a camp that says we can somehow find a happy marriage with the Palestinians. You have make peace with a people who hate you. But, we need to find a necessary divorce. We can’t look our children in the eye and pass on millions more Palestinians to them and say “you deal with it.” The working plan on the table right now is two states for two people, and our goal is to find every imaginable way to get to negotiations. Not rush to anything, this is not the flag issue for our campaign either, but to work on a two-state solution and internationally recognized agreement, and get that in to place. And we are sensitive to the issue of the land that we would have to give to the Palestinians, and we understand that there are spiritual connections, emotional connections, and the prospect of removing people from their homes is not ideal. But this is the situation that we’re in and this is what we have to be pursuing.
We are very concerned with Israel’s standing in the international community. Not because we need other people dictating what’s right for us, but because it is right of us to have the support of the international community. We deal with major issues such as Gaza and Iran and we think it’s a mistake to not have their support. Bennett actually has made some Bombastic statements about this, removing us from what the rest of the world thinks, and their funding.
FPB: Do you think Netanyahu is trying to kill the two-state solution?
DL: Prime Minister Netanyahu is in very tough bind. I don’t think he individually is trying to kill it, that’s not my take on it. But listen, he’s in a party where he has to play that game. I just see him doing nothing. I see him doing nothing, thinking that he can play a game, walk the walk, talk it and then find a way out of it. It’s a huge a mistake. There are indications, I don’t have any proof, but there are indications, that he might explore a more center coalition. This means actually talking to Livni, actually talk to us, and finding a way to possibly even bring Labor in as well.
FPB: On my last trip to Israel I ran into a lot of pessimism on the part of the average Israeli in regards to current societal trends, as well as what the future may hold. What is Yair optimistic about?
DL: He’s optimistic that Israeli society has reached a point where they are saying “no more” to the way things have been handled. In 11 months he’s built a party that has 102 branches and 15,000 volunteers, most of them younger, and he’s been able to generate tremendous hope. One of our slogans is “the future of Israel is in our hands.” With leadership there are two steps, the first is to give people the belief that something can happen, and then to execute it. I think part one he’s really done. It’s a breath of fresh air. In Israel politics you don’t really hear people talking about vision and where we can be and setting our sights high. He’s really doing that. I think he on a certain level has instilled that hope. I think he’s optimistic because he’s seen the response to his call for making this change and that we can actually get this done. On the campaign trail there is no doubt that we’ve seen it most in the young people. It’s glaring. We go places and do events and it’s generating a younger population which is jumping on board saying “we don’t want to accept the old politics. It’s time for something new.”