An Orthodox, Feminist, Cancer Survivor Is One of Israel’s Most Intriguing Right-wing Politicians

Habayit Hayehudi parliamentarian Shuli Moalem–Refaeli makes no apologies for not asking 2.5 million Palestinians what they want. She's ready to annex the whole West Bank, but sees herself as a humanist, feminist and pragmatist

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Moalem­–Refaeli. 'I have no doubt that the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria see the Arab population as human beings.'
Moalem­–Refaeli. 'I have no doubt that the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria see the Arab population as human beings.'Credit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

After having our pictures taken on the ruins of the former northern West Bank settlement of Homesh, which was evacuated in the 2005 disengagement — or the “expulsion,” as MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli makes a point of calling it — we were heading back to the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron when a Palestinian driver almost crashed into the car we drove in.

“Hey, bro!” Moalem called out.

“He’s not your brother,” said Benny Gal, a settler who used to live in Homesh, and was in the car with us.

“Sorry, sorry, my mistake,” giggled Moalem.

“Why apologize?” I said to her. “It looks to me like your instinct is good, to see a person as a brother in the human race.”

“You’re right ,you’re right,” she replied.

Our joint ride (which was in fact a violation of the Disengagement Law) could serve as a key to understanding the character of Moalem-Refaeli — Habayit Hayehudi’s faction chairwoman in the Knesset, a feminist, a Mizrahi Orthodox Jew, a pediatric nurse by profession, and a breast-cancer survivor.

On the one hand there’s the policy she promotes, the most extreme on the political map, her repeated statements that she “doesn’t work for the Palestinians” and that her role isn’t to “dry the Arabs’ tears.” On the other she’s characterized by innate humaneness, intellectual flexibility and above all practicality. Currently she’s promoting a law to annul the disengagement, which would allow the presence of Jews in an area controlled by the army.

On her decision not to have breast reconstruction surgery: 'I have to say that even before, my boobs weren’t any big deal for me, okay? Even in my best days I wore a high school girl’s A cup. I hear from other women who talk about this as part of their identity, I respect that of course.'

“Look, in northern Samaria something happened that is a semi-pregnancy,” she said to me. “They evacuated the settlements but the army is there. This is still under the control of the state of Israel. Then what happens? The children from northern Samaria have to travel for two hours to get to school, in a roundabout way. Only the army drives directly. So if the army drives that way, let the civilians do it too. Altogether, no one understood the thing about evacuating the communities in northern Samaria and the northern sector in the Gaza Strip. Only God and Ariel Sharon know why. And it’s already impossible to ask him,” she says, referring to the late prime minister, who was responsible for the 2005 disengagement plan that included the evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza, and the dismantling of four settlements in the northern West Bank, including Homesh.

Jewish settlers, supporters of the Amona outpost, northeast of Ramallah, are moved away by Israeli security forces at the wildcat settlement on February 1, 2017.Credit: AFP / Thomas COEX

'Altogether, no one understood the thing about evacuating the communities in northern Samaria and the northern sector in the Gaza Strip. Only God and Ariel Sharon know why.'

What is your aim? Do you want to bring people who were evacuated back there?

“We haven’t talked about that yet. We’ve talked about basic things, that the Samaria Regional Council garbage truck would not have to travel for two hours in each direction. Life provides the good reasons.”

Life also provides Palestinians who are delayed for hours at the roadblocks because of you.

“I think it is impossible to ignore the reality that exists here. Even if you gather all the price –tag incidents and the terrible murder that occurred in Duma [in which three members of a Palestinian family were burned to death when their house was firebombed], there still have been thousands of Jews murdered here by Arabs and not the other way around. For very many years the governments of Israel decided not to decide in Judea and Samaria and that has led to this way we are living here — the Jews and the Palestinians. I don’t absolve the Palestinians of responsibility for everything that has happened. This murderousness is something incomprehensible.”

Does the situation look symmetrical to you?

“I didn’t say that the situation is symmetrical. I am the one in control. But when the response to the fact that they aren’t managing to achieve their aspirations is murderousness — that’s something I can’t tolerate or understand. I don’t understand how they think that anything good will come out of acts of terror.”

It seems to me that there is no people in history that has succeeded in liberating itself without a struggle. What do you expect, that they will wait politely for you to allow them to achieve self-determination?

“To be totally frank, I don’t expect anything from the Palestinians because I don’t work for the Palestinians. I am not here to give them an answer in the matter of their national aspirations.”

And in saying that, you are avoiding a substantive answer.

“I want to talk about the Palestinians’ lives from a civil perspective. Even for the looniest, most extreme rightists like me it’s not pleasant to see them getting taken out of their car at a roadblock. Ultimately I live here. I live with them, I shop with them at Rami Levy. It wasn’t pleasant in the last wave of terror to see that they weren’t coming into our community anymore. This is warped. It’s about this that I want to act.”

'It was accepted that secular widows lived in arrangements with all kinds of marriage agreements and didn’t lose their rights and the religious widows married and lost all their rights. I came along and said to the state: it stops here.'

”Seeing Arabs as human beings”

Moalem-Refaeli entered the last Knesset in the 12th spot on the Habayit Hayehudi slate and she is considered the faithful operational arm of party chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett. In the last election in which Habayit Hayehudi lost votes to Likud, she did not make it to the current Knesset; Bennett resigned as an MK in order to vacate a place for her.

She is a Mizrahi with Moroccan-Jewish roots who grew up in a nonreligious neighborhood in Haifa and crossed the Green Line at a relatively late age in the wake of her second marriage. She has clearly socially oriented positions within the capitalist, nearly libertarian, realm that is developing in Judea and Samaria. All this makes her a subversive figure, notwithstanding her diligent attempts to coordinate the settlers’ party. Or as she put it in her own words when we were discussing the changing of the elites in Israel: “In the end you discover that they (the elites) are always Ashkenazi men.”

“It seems to me that you are different from many of them,” I said to her in one of the conversations we had at her meticulous home in the bourgeois settlement of Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion.

You see a human being and say he is a human being. Many of your partners see him first of all as an Arab. And in the end, you are working for them. You are working for the most extreme faction in religious Zionism and in the settlement movement.

“I absolutely don’t agree with you. I have no doubt that the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria see the Arab population as human beings, with whom we have a disagreement. Some of them are our bitter enemies and some of them want to live here in peace and are swept into the difficult reality of the Palestinian Authority. They are human beings but that doesn’t contradict the fact that they are an enemy.”

All of them?

'There are two things that I tell them they won’t get: You will not have national self­-determination here, because this is the nation­-state of the Jewish people, and the Law of Return doesn’t apply to you. Now, do you want to quarrel with me about these things? Fine. Do you want to say that I am arrogant because of these two things? Fine.'

“When you are driving in Judea and Samaria and you see a traffic accident you aren’t going to ask if it’s a Jew or an Arab and then decide whether to stop. The same for the Arabs. They are human beings but I am at war with them. There is a war here over this place, over the historical, the human, the moral narrative. Over everything.”

I am trying to figure out where you are in this discourse of “we are the lords of the land.” Are you in fact saying the same thing only in a politer way?

“It’s perfectly clear who owns this land. It’s clear what has to be here: The nation-state of the Jewish people. At the same time, it’s impossible to eradicate their existence. I don’t ignore the fact that there are 2.5 million Arabs here. Anyone who does isn’t in touch with solutions that can be implemented. I personally think it is necessary to declare sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria but I understand that in Areas A and B there will apparently be no decision because most of the Israeli public will throw me out the window if I tell them that 2.5 million Arabs will be added to the state of Israel,” says Moalem, referring to the areas which, under the Oslo Accords, are administered fully or partially by the Palestinian Authority, and where the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank live. “Therefore, in recent months I’ve been saying: Let’s implement sovereignty over C and give full citizenship to all the 50,000 to 60,000 people [Palestinians] who are there,”she adds, referring to the area, which is fully administered by Israel under the accord.

Does it seem logical to you that Jews will argue unilaterally among themselves about the fate of 2.5 million people?

“I don’t have any questions at all about this matter. Why ask them? I am not saying this in order to insult them but rather because we know what they will say. This is our decision. In this land there is one state and it is the nation -state of the Jewish people — this is the Jewish aspect. The democratic aspect also includes non-Jews, whose civil rights have to be addressed, but not their national aspirations.”

Why would the Palestinians accept this? Why would the world approve annexation of part of the territories?

“Because then it will be impossible to create territorial contiguity there about which it is necessary to think about how to expand it, together with security things that have to be taken into account. So then it will be possible to diminish this thing that is disturbing them in everyday life, the roadblocks and the presence of the Israel Defense Forces and also to increase their freedom of movement and their economic prosperity.”

Moalem-Refaeli says that the issue of the territories, or Judea and Samaria as she refers to them, is just a symbol or a derivative of another core activity of hers. She submitted one of the versions of the Jewish nation - state bill, which holds that the State of Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people,” and that “the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”Why is this law necessary?

“To declare that first of all the state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Can you not understand the argument that this is a racist law?


Because you yourself say that by means of this law you have more rights in the state of Israel.

“I have no problem with that. I’ve never pretended to say anything different. Is the Law of Return racist? So why aren’t you revoking it? The Law of Return applies to Jews. It doesn’t apply to Arabs. End of story. The Jews of the whole world — this is their state. They have the ability and the right to immigrate here. We have never pretended to be a state like any other state.”

In light of all this, are you able to understand [Joint List] MK Ahmad Tibi’s frustration or MK Aida Touma-Suliman’s frustration because this land is their homeland and their ancestors’ homeland?

“I am able to understand that.”

So what do you say to them? Okay, too bad, you were born Arabs?

“Excuse me, this is the state of Israel. It’s what you want so you will have rights as citizens. I will act so that you will have all the rights, except for national self-determination. You can choose to stay here or you can choose to go somewhere else, where you will have self-determination. Are you saying that just because Ahmed Tibi and Aida Touma-Suliman don’t like it, I will give up on the Jewish people’s nation-state?

Don’t you ever stop for a moment and think: If I were in that person’s shoes I would want to be treated differently?

“I’ll tell you what I do. I am giving a lot of thought to how it’s possible to bring about a change together. I and an Arab woman – my aspiration is that we will be the same in our civil rights, in our ability to get accepted to jobs, that the university will be open to us all, that their homes will be built in an orderly way like the homes of Jews, that they won’t have to build without building permits. There are two things that I tell them they won’t get: You will not have national self-determination here, because this is the nation -state of the Jewish people, and the Law of Return doesn’t apply to you. Now, do you want to quarrel with me about these things? Fine. Do you want to say that I am arrogant because of these two things? Fine, but it is possible to say at the same time and with less energy, ‘okay, about these two things we really don’t agree but about 98 percent of the things we do agree.’ There we have to bring about equality, there we have to make revolutions.”

From widow to activist

Moalem-Refaeli’s political career began at the organization of IDF Widows and Orphans after her first husband, Moshe Moalem, was killed in the 1997 helicopter disaster (in which two Israeli Air Force transport helicopters on their way to Israel’s “security zone” in southern Lebanon collided in mid-air, killing all 73 on board.) She was 32. There is no need to challenge her with the taunt that she leveraged her mourning into a political career.

She admits this readily. “I began my political career out of the disaster of the crashed helicopters. Everything I had done in my whole life, at my university, in my city, in my community, at my synagogue, at my hospital, in my family, took on a national aspect on the night the helicopters crashed. I’d never thought I would become a member of the Knesset. If you had said that to me at one time, I would have thought you were nuts.”

Moalem got married for the second time to Dr. Eli Refaeli, a divorced physicist who was, unlike her first husband, religious. She moved to the settlement of Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion in order to live with him and resigned from her job as a nurse in order to devote herself to the project of combining their two families — Refaeli’s three children and her own two daughters. She says that the marriage did not influence her political views or the degree of her religious observance . “When I was married to Moalem I was religious to the same degree and I wore a head covering,” she notes. The first step that set her on her activist path was in fact her second marriage. She married Refaeli in an Orthodox wedding ceremony without registering at the Rbbinate, in order not to lose her rights as an IDF widow.

So in fact you got married in secret.

“Why in secret? I got married openly. I had a wedding canopy, and blessings, and there were 800 people including the chief of staff and the president but I didn’t register at the Rabbinate or at the Interior Ministry. It was accepted that secular widows lived in arrangements with all kinds of marriage agreements and didn’t lose their rights and the religious widows married and lost all their rights. I came along and said to the state: it stops here. The law of the state of Israel said that when my husband was killed I lost a breadwinner and if I remarried then a new breadwinner was found for me — that is shocking. Excuse me, with all due respect, why does the state of Israel have to come into my bedroom? Every time I remember that situation my hair stands on end under my hat. It took me four years to change that law.”

Her husband’s death was not the first tragedy in Moalem-Refaeli’s life. Her mother died suddenly when she was 14 years old. “We don’t talk about my mother at all. Not me and not my siblings.”


“Because it’s” she whispers in tears.

You had to deal with the breast cancer you were diagnosed with seven and a half years ago.

“Ah, that ” Moalem-Refaeli waves her hand dismissively.

On that you’ve turned the page?

“You know, it’s as though ... Like every normal woman who soaps herself in the shower, I felt a lump and it took me a week to get to the doctor. He already felt two lumps and the next day in the mammogram the professor saw nine lumps. Three years earlier my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was clear that ... I was 44 years old. I was in shock for my daughters. I said, damn it, their father was killed, their mother ”

Did you tell them?

“Yes. On the day I received the diagnosis we told all the children and I told Eli’s parents. I am one of those people who fly the anti-concealment flag. It was a very intensive illness and after three months, it was over. And I admit that apparently it’s not without reason that I’m not making a big deal about this. Contrary to what my children say, that I obsess over things, certainly over Moalem’s death, with the cancer it has been different. I don’t know how to say what it did to me. I hardly speak about it.

“The only thing I did is this,” she says, passing her hand over the place where her breasts had been.

You chose to undergo a total mastectomy and not have reconstruction. That’s a courageous decision and pretty unusual.

“Look, I have to say that even before, my boobs weren’t any big deal for me, okay? Even in my best days I wore a high school girl’s A cup. I hear from other women who talk about this as part of their identity – I respect that of course. I think it’s a woman’s body part that has significance, the ability to nurse for example. There is no question about that. But I have to admit that we went to the meeting with the plastic surgeon only because it was important to my husband that I at least examine the alternatives. We sat there and after an hour the surgeon said to me: Listen sweetie, go home and when you want to do it, come back.”

Why not, in fact?

“Because first of all it is a huge operation. After I had the first surgery, it got infected, and we opened up the surgery and then we got the answer that the lymph nodes were also affected and then I had a third operation. General anesthesia, three times within about a month. I came out a woman without a memory. So would I then choose to put myself through major surgery again? In the end because of this choice I did not need radiation.”

Moalem-Refaeli does not think that her choice to go about in the world without breasts – that is, to stick with what is comfortable, important and healthy for her in the face of the overwhelming power of body image –is a feminist act but rather another practical step along the way. Her feminism, given that she calls herself a feminist enthusiastically and wholly, is more of way of life than a formulated agenda.

It is manifested in all kinds of ways, beginning with the fact that she doesn’t like it if anyone else drives her vehicle, especially on the difficult roads in the West Bank and culminating in her collaborations with other women in the Knesset, mainly on the left, which sometimes rile her fellow caucus members and sometimes elicit the unique violence reserved for feminists. With MK Zahava Galon (Meretz) she is advancing the law to prosecute clients of prostitutes. With MK Merav Micaheli (Zionist Union) she is working on the law to regularize litigation in family disputes and with other women Knesset members she is waging the stormy battle over custody of young children.

Close to Bennett

Moalem is very close to Bennett in part because they share the outlook that she calls “integrating religious Zionism into the Israeli space” — that is, the aspiration to break through the sector’s boundaries. A controversial opinion piece in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition — in which writer Yossi Klein called religious Zionists more dangerous than Hezbollah — didn’t just infuriate her. It also made her think, she says.

“It takes a moment to read it and understand how it can be that this is what people are saying. It prompted me to think about whether in our conduct as religious Zionists there is something that distances groups in Israeli society. What he wrote is incorrect but let’s see for a moment, maybe there are people who could be close to us, who think we relate to them arrogantly and are not dealing with their needs. These are critical questions for the leadership. What is the best way both to advance the agenda you have come with — and part of the agenda is Jewish identity and the land of Israel — and at the same time not neglect other things?”

As I understand it, in his article Klein also tried to point out your self-righteousness. That you are supposedly sacrificing for the sake of the greater good but in fact you are harnessing the wider public to your own interests.

“A statement like that stems only from envy. It’s like what I said about the State Comptroller’s Report that said 56 percent of the young people’s seed groups for communal living have a political identity – explain to me what the problem with that is. Yesterday I did a tour with the head of the Megilot Regional Council [near the Dead Sea] that is establishing a new community. He told me that for every five religious families one secular family comes. Do I have to apologize for that? I also didn’t have any problem with the things Naftali said, that we are giving our lives, and they attacked him for that. This is part of our education. The ideology doesn’t come from a place of ‘Wow, we don’t have food and drink and we are unfortunate, we don’t know what the good life is and we don’t travel abroad and we need you to open the civilized world to us.’ No! That’s over! We have an excellent life and things are very good. And we think that technological progress is good and bad, like they think in Tel Aviv, and that cellular phones are wonderful and dreadful, like the mother of seven here and the mother of two in Tel Aviv. Along with that, ideology and devotion to the general good and a true desire to influence — that is education. And we do not mean to apologize for the fact that we are succeeding in the education of our children.”



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