Opinion |

In Israel's Election, No-one's Talking About the Rabbis. But They Should

In the nastiest, emptiest Israeli election I've ever witnessed, there was nearly a meaningful debate about one substantial issue. Then the moment passed

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benny Gantz, head of the Kahol Lavan party, dances with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during his visit to the Western Wall, March 28, 2019.
Benny Gantz, head of the Kahol Lavan party, dances with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during his visit to the Western Wall, March 28, 2019.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This is the nastiest, emptiest Israeli election I can remember.

The first I paid any attention to was in 1984, when I was 11. They say that the election of 1981 was particularly vicious. This time, everything boils down to whether Benjamin Netanyahu is too corrupt to continue as prime minister and if Benny Gantz has the mental stamina to run the country.

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Devoid of all policy or ideology, the chances of meeting an actual issue in the wild have become so slim, that candidates gawp at you when you ask them about their positions on anything besides in whose government they would serve. Just occasionally, you might catch a glimpse of something meaningful. Blink and you’ve missed it.

Last Tuesday, there was one such fleeting moment when the election jousting reached beyond the personal. It was hard to notice, coming as it did in the context of yet more mud-slinging, but beneath the dross was a hard kernel of principle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud campaign event in Beersheva. 7 March 2019Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It all began last Monday, in Washington, at the AIPAC conference, with a crowd-pleasing line in Gantz’s speech. Making heavy use of his paratrooper past, Gantz said that "as a proud owner of a red beret, worn by the liberators of the Kotel, I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone. Everyone."

It wasn’t a central part of the speech and was aimed mainly at his American Jewish listeners, as the failed Kotel agreement has hardly been a central plank in Kachol Lavan’s platform (it’s mentioned there in one line deep in the "State and Religion" chapter.)

It was enough though, for Moshe Gafni, one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, to hit back at Gantz in an online video.

"I’m not giving you advice about matters you took care of when you were IDF Chief of Staff," said Gafni in the video. "I didn’t advise what to say, or not to say, about the submarines. I have a request of you. Don’t advise us on what is happening at the Western Wall, its size, holiness and who should be allowed there and not allowed. Don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Because your talk causes great damage."

That was it, no follow-up. Gantz got his applause in Washington, and Gafni his likes online.

What was interesting about this exchange is that ostensibly it wasn’t two politicians trying to win over the same electorate. Gantz was talking to American Jews at AIPAC, who don’t even have the right to vote in Israel. He was spending precious campaign time outside Israel, only two weeks before the election, because his advisors felt he needed to impress upon Israelis back home that not only Netanyahu can get a warm reception from a crowd overseas.

Gafni was responding, not because he’s worried that Gantz’s inclusive message could sway voters who otherwise might be choosing to vote for his ultra-Orthodox party.

Both of them were grandstanding.

'The nation of Israel lives' vs 'Kahane lives': Kahol Lavan billboards in Ramat Gan, March 17, 2019Credit: AFP

Gantz wanted to show he was no Netanyahu, who had signed on to the Kotel agreement, only to backtrack once his ultra-Orthodox allies threatened to pull out of the coalition over it.

Gafni just wanted to show religious voters who fear progressive Jews - and won’t be voting for Kachol Lavan anyway - that he’s no slouch at attacking Gantz and is just as effective at that bloodsport as the other party leaders in the right-wing-religious bloc.

But what both men were actually saying was much more radical than they intended. Gantz, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, preceded his Kotel gesture with the historical observation that, "in Bergen-Belsen, no-one asked who is Reform and who is Conservative; who is Orthodox and who is secular," seemed to be arguing for equality for all Jewish religious streams in Israel.

But there’s no mention of the progressive streams in the Kachol Lavan manifesto. It includes various promises of improving and liberalizing the kashrut and conversion systems, allowing local councils to operate public transport on Shabbat and even introducing civil partnerships. But while it promises greater transparency in the way the state’s chief rabbinate wields power, there’s nothing about breaking the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on religious life in Israel.

In America, Gantz spoke of equality, but at home all he’s offering is a more benign Orthodox monopoly.

MK Moshe Gafni speaks at the opening of the United Torah Judaism campaign headquarters in Bnei Brak. 24 Feb 2019Credit: Moti Milrod

Gafni’s retort was also a misrepresentation of his party’s position. In the video, he admonished Gantz not to interfere in the Kotel, "which has its [own] holiness." It was a reiteration of the old Haredi position: Render unto the rabbis the things that are God’s. Leave the rest to the secular government.

It’s a deal that many Israelis would accept willingly. Let them rule the Kotel and the Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts, they do so anyway, as long as religion is banished from the rest of our public life. From the national education and health systems, from local government and public transport.

But Gafni doesn’t want that - and his rabbis aren’t about to let him anyway. He isn’t going to relinquish his powerful position as chair of the Knesset’s finance committee. And his UTJ co-leader Yaakov Litzman will demand to retain control of the Health Ministry in the next government. Shas’ Arye Deri is still planning to be interior minister and the settlers’ rabbis intend to extend their influence within and over secular schools and the military.

We could be having that long-overdue debate on the role of rabbis in Israeli society. But Gantz isn’t seriously challenging their hegemony, and Gafni doesn’t really want to demarcate the limits of religious power. This election isn’t going to redress the state and synagogue balance. They both know that. All the politicians care about is Bibi or Benny.

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