Top ultra-Orthodox MK Tells Haaretz Readers: We're Here to Stop anti-Haredi Discrimination

United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee, in Q&A about recruiting Haredim to the IDF, the next budget and the place of Haredi politics; Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni to answer Haaretz readers' questions at 7:30 A.M. EST (2:30 P.M. Israel time).

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Moshe Gafni has represented the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community in the Knesset since 1988. According to all the recent polls, United Torah Judaism will preserve its power in the next Knesset and secure six seats.

Who do you prefer as a partner in coalition negotiations - Shas' Eli Yishai or Aryeh Deri? (Meni)

This is a decision to be made by Shas and its spiritual leaders, and we'll respect whatever decision they make.

What do you think should be done about the scheming and divisions that plague UTJ? (Brachi)

Scheming and divisions plague other parties much more than us. UTJ represents everyone without exception.

In accordance with the growing proportion of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israeli society, the number of seats UTJ wins should be constantly on the rise. However, it's not happening. Do the ultra-Orthodox vote for non-Haredi parties, or refrain from voting altogether? (Yigal)

This is an excellent question that we've been unable to answer for some years now. There are fewer Haredi voters, and I'm not talking about the radical fringes, who boycott the elections.

I don't know why Haredim refrain from voting for us, but I hope this trend will be reversed thanks to our many achievements in the Knesset Finance Committee, the Health Ministry and the plentiful private legislation that we initiated in the Knesset. I hope that one day your question will not be relevant.

In a party conference you said that the coming election is the most pivotal in history for the Haredi community. What did you mean by that? Do you think that ultra-Orthodox men will be drafted after the election? Does the public resent the community more than in the past? (Hananel)

More and more Israelis are becoming more and more religious and traditional. We now see synagogues and mikvehs even in kibbutzim. What you have to understand is that there's a shrinking minority of atheists who think that the Jewish people should be like the French or the English, without any Jewish character. It's a minority that used to be hegemonic and therefore feels that the counrty is slipping through their fingers.

Most Israelis now believe in G-d. The numbers are unprecedented. Most Israelis think that we are the Chosen People and that we aren't a nation like all others. And who do these people blame for it? The Haredim, because we are very happy with this trend and encourage it.

The public doesn't resent the Haredim more than before. Every Haredi has been told at some point, "if only all the ultra-Orthodox were like you." Because people's image is of radical, violent Haredim who hurl stones at cars on Shabbat. There's no resentment - it's only on TV, not in real life.

Whether this election is critical to the relation between religion and state, the answer is yes. It's the first time I've witnessed the Knesset debating the very basics. The struggle between the Haredim and the anticlerical minority is in full swing, and is likely to be decided during the term of the next Knesset, especially on the issue of yeshiva students, who are the backbone of the Jewish people throughout history. Maintaining that is our most cherished cause.

Can a Haredi person who seeks to get into the job market feel equally represented by UTJ? If so, how do you explain the feeling among many working ultra-Orthodox people that they're underrepresented? (Yaakov)

The UTJ list comprises of many working Haredim, just like the majority of the community. Yaakov, I'm a working Haredi too.

The most important thing for us is abiding by the Torah, which is what we're trying to achieve when ultra-Orthodox people go out to work, like in local councils for example. As for education, it's more complicated but it's not an exclusively Israeli problem. All over the world, people want to educate their children in institutions that reflect their worldview, toegther with other people who share their values.

I'd like to ask you a question about the future. Demographic models show that in a few decades the ultra-Orthodox will be the majority in Israel. I'd like to know how you envisage Israel when it comes to that - not only obvious questions like who will serve in the army, who will carry out scientific research and the economic activity, etc. But I'm much more interested in hearing your vision about democracy - civic, minority and women's rights. Do you think Israel should still aspire to be a liberal democracy? (Abu Saraia)

When it comes to minority rights, my record speaks for itself. I've been a member of the house for the past 23 years, and Arab MKs say I'm one of the few Jewish members who never uttered one racist idea.

Everybody knows that the Finance Committee under my chairmanship helped minority communities, investing in infrastructure and education there. It's a halakhic and moral duty to help minorities in Israel.

This apocalyptic question – what we'll do when we take over – is unwarranted. We've had only five Knesset seats for many years, so no need to panic. I shudder at the idea – I'd have to share power with [fellow UTJ MK Yaakov] Litzman In any event, this is not a likely prospect.

About military service, for most of their history the Jewish people were at war. Half of the people fought and the other half studied Torah. I'm all in favor of continuing this arrangement.

Quite often it emerges that the Knesset Finance Committee, that you chair, channels more and more funds to the Haredi community (like private religious schools) and to settlements in the Occupied Territories, which are illegal according to international law and sometimes Israeli law as well. As an elected representative, don't you think it's your responsibility to see that taxpayers - who are mostly secular or traditional working people who live in metropolitan Israel - will be the first to receive these funds? (Yahav)

The role of the Finance Committee is to approve or reject legislation that has been voted upon by the Knesset plenary or the cabinet. All we do is approve it or not. During my tenure, I've approved the channeling of huge sums to ends that I personally disapprove of. Last month alone, I channeled a billion shekels to services that I don't entirely support. In a democratic country, every sector - Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, immigrants and Sabras - should have equal access to state services. I can't recall having channeled funds to Orthodox circles more than they deserve, and I will certainly not put up with them suffering even more discrimination than they do today. It is unacceptable that ultra-Orthodox parents won't be able to send their kids to school. I'm doing my best to provide all Israelis with as much as we can to help them get through this rough period.

Do you think it's right that representative of a community that makes the smallest contribution to the economy would chair the Knesset Finance Committee - where all the decisions about the distribution of the budget are made? (Oded)

Tens of thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands - of Haredi men and women are hardworking people whose wages are lower than average. They rarely work in the civil service, which means that they don't enjoy the favorable conditions that others get, just because they're Haredi. Throughout my years in the Knesset I've tried to bring Haredi people into the job market and help them make a decent living. It is unfair to complain that I represent a community that makes no contribution. I represent a community that is discriminated against. Studies have consistently showed that a Haredi will be the last to be hired - even after immigrants and Arabs - because employers are prejudiced: they think that Haredim aren't hardworking.

United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni in the Haaretz newsroom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe GafniCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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