From Rabbi Gamliel With Love

Gamliel was one of the first who dared to disseminate openly the twisted idea that Shas is being persecuted on ethnic grounds, in the period when that notion was still considered too embarrassing to be voiced in civilized company. "The establishment wants to eliminate Shas," he declared.

Shas marked a small victory during the weekend in its struggle against factionalism when MK Aryeh Gamliel announced his retirement from politics and gave up his plans to run at the head of a new Knesset list set up by the Kedouri family, Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel). Last Tuesday, Gamliel participated in a press conference for the new party and announced that his colleagues and he "intend to carry on in the spirit of [Aryeh] Deri's revolution." Gamliel promised that after the elections, "We will go to Rabbi Deri, place the keys on the table and tell him: `Rabbi Aryeh, you are our leader.'" But this weekend Gamliel announced his retirement after Deri chastised him for using his name.

While it may be a day of joy for Shas, it is more so for all those interested in orderly public and political life in Israel. During his 14 years in politics, Gamliel has operated like a spray gun, spreading hatred, strife and factionalism in every direction. In fact, while he may not be as great a religious authority as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for years he has succeeded in posing genuine competition to the big mouth of Shas's spiritual mentor. Space is limited, so the following is a brief survey of Gamliel's activity in the realm of curses, excoriations and vilifications.

Gamliel was one of the first who dared to disseminate openly the twisted idea that Shas is being persecuted on ethnic grounds, in the period when that notion was still considered too embarrassing to be voiced in civilized company. "The establishment wants to eliminate Shas," he declared at the beginning of the last decade. "Every ethnic party has been liquidated by means of its incrimination." Gamliel also asserted, ahead of the 1992 elections, that Shas would demand the police portfolio "in order to supervise first-hand the doing of justice."

Gamliel's aide, Eli Tsubari, was convicted of tapping the phone of Mordechai Gilat, an investigative reporter on the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Gamliel announced that Tsubari "deserves the Israel Prize for wiretapping because he exposed the true criminals who should have been sent to prison." According to the leader of Ahavat Yisrael, those criminals were Gilat himself and the national police chief at the time, Yaakov Terner, with whom Gilat spoke by phone.

Gamliel described the staff of the State Prosecutor's Office as "a true, racist mafia, a gang of bloodsucking murderers." By the way, it's not only Tsubari who should be awarded the Israel Prize, according to Gamliel; he also asserted that "the brilliant Rabbi Uzi Meshulam should get a prize in the form of his release from prison." (Meshulam led a violent group that demanded the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the "disappeared Yemenite children" affair, dating back to Israel's early years.)

Subsequently, Gamliel was the leading exponent of the contention that the trial of former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri was "the second Dreyfus trial, a disgrace, a shame, a canard, a blood libel, absolute arrant nonsense."

In 1996, when he served as deputy minister of religious affairs, Gamliel stated that any one who turned to the secular courts for justice "is as though lifting a hand against the Torah of Moses." The decisive factor is the Torah, and not secular law, he explained. Gamliel described Rabbi Yosef's assertion that the justices of the Supreme Court are "evil and unclean and are the cause of the torments in the world" as "the word of the living God and a good deed for the speaker."

Gamliel maintained a consistently high place on the list of Knesset idlers and do-nothings. As part of the desperate efforts of Shas to find him something to do, Gamliel, who is one of the most extreme of the MKs in Shas (a party in which it's not easy to stand out in the realm of extremism), was suggested for the sensitive post of rabbi of the Western Wall. His fitness for that position is apparent from some of his comments: "Under no circumstances will we agree to a mixed [men and women] Western Wall Plaza," "Separation between men and women must be established at the Tomb of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]," "It is inappropriate and dishonorable for women to sit next to rabbis," and "The committee to appoint religious court judges is no place for women."

It would appear surprising that the Kedouri family chose Gamliel of all people to head an electoral list now called Ahavat Yisrael, and formerly "Ahdut Yisrael" (Unity of Israel). Moreover, the definition of the nation of Israel given by the founders of the new list is relatively narrow and does not include the judiciary, the elites, independent women and leftists, in all forms.

On the other hand, this is a country in which a politician who over the years proved his ability to bring war and sow destruction was elected prime minister on his promise that only he could achieve peace that would protect us; and ever since, war has prevailed throughout the land and tens of thousands of security guards are protecting us. So why should we complain about the Kedouri family for choosing Gamliel to spread love in Israel?

Still, it is not clear whether we can fully celebrate the retirement of Gamliel at this early stage in the election campaign, or whether we should wait for the official conclusion of the process. After all, we can't ignore the fact that he is one of the great survivors in Israeli politics. Shas's Council of Sages tried to remove him from the party's Knesset list in the last two elections, but he managed to rebuff them by arguing that his ouster would be an affront.

Rabbi Gamliel's success at survival reached a peak in May 2001, when the Council of Sages instructed its secretary, Raphael Pinhasi, to prepare a letter declaring his removal. Gamliel, though, was abroad and could not be located. After his return, he rarely showed himself in the Knesset, and Pinhasi was unable to give him the letter. He eventually concluded his term and taught the Council of Sages a lesson in how to keep one's seat and have it, too.

It is impossible, then, to ignore the possibility that this time, too, Rabbi Gamliel will find a way to crawl back onto the Shas list for the next Knesset. If so, this will undoubtedly be explained on grounds of love of Israel and the unity of Israel.