Head to Head / Tzipi Livni, Is Netanyahu Afraid of Rabbis?

This week opposition leader Tzipi Livni attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his initial failure to respond to right-wing protests over the arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior, who was held for refusing to appear for questioning about his endorsement of a book that justifies killing non-Jews.

This week opposition leader Tzipi Livni attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his initial failure to respond to right-wing protests over the arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior, who was held for refusing to appear for questioning about his endorsement of a book that justifies killing non-Jews.

Lior, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, was released Monday after questioning. Police are investigating the book, "Torat Hamelech," on grounds of incitement, and recently questioned and released its author, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira.

Livni - Alon Ron
Alon Ron

Your criticism apparently set the prime minister going. The same day, he came out with a statement that no one was above the law.

I saw some comment that everyone is equal according to the law. This is too little considering everything we face, and it is not only about yesterday, but rather what we may expect in the future. All of Israeli society is struggling with what lies beneath the surface and emerges regularly in [such] incidents.

There is a significant question here: While Netanyahu and all of us talk about the State of Israel as the national home for the Jewish people, there is an argument about what a democratic Jewish state is. This is not a theological disagreement or an argument in political science class. Is the source of law the law or the Torah? Is the interpreter a rabbi or a court?

This issue comes up all the time - with regard to conversion, for example. That's a different matter because the state, importantly, makes legal decisions while [conversion] is dealt with by the religious establishment. My second point is that we see a lack of acceptance of governmental authority to make decisions concerning the future of the state; we are talking about political decisions that the government is authorized to make.

Might it be that since the state willingly ceded its authority to the religious establishment in certain areas, like conversion and divorce, that this gave an opening to the religious establishment and its supporters to fight for the right to decide in other areas?

I don't think so. I believe that some of the agreements we must reach deal with the question of the significance of a Jewish state, what its values are. And it's obvious that the state can also make decisions in certain areas where others also have specific rights - and with whom, by the way, I have no serious quarrel.

When you say that part of the discussion is about the image of the Jewish state, that touches on the racist laws recently passed in the Knesset, like the admissions committee law allowing some communities to screen potential residents.

Admissions committees disturb me from a societal point of view; we can call it club selection, but let's return to the main issue. It's not enough to demand that the world call us a Jewish state. Since the founding of the state, we have yet to decide what this means. We've avoided a constitution, which should be the highest source of authority and which the Knesset should produce, defining the essence and identity of the State of Israel. In my opinion, the minute we define this, we create content in the space between the two poles that exist today.

One side claims that a Jewish state is a halakhic state [run according to Jewish religious law], as interpreted by a rabbi. The other side sees the meaning of a Jewish state as a state in which there is a Jewish majority, a numerical matter. I think we must pour meaning into the words 'Jewish national home' in the national sense; that is to say, the Law of Return must be the first clause in the constitution. Its symbols must, of course, be connected to Jewish tradition and history.

I am in favor of significant symbols; it's not for nothing that our weekly day of rest is Saturday and not another day. But the minute we define this, we are defining something else as well: that each citizen who resides here has equal rights. For me, equality is part of my Jewish values, not just a democratic value. But one way or another, there must be equality for all citizens of the State of Israel. It is not a favor that we do for them, but to express the identity and essence of Israel in two of its elements: both Jewish and democratic.

Do you think Netanyahu is afraid of rabbis?

In my opinion, Netanyahu is afraid of everyone who in some way represents potential support for him now or in the future. Since the day he was elected, Netanyahu has been concerned with the question of how he can be reelected, instead of dealing with the question of what he can do now for the State of Israel as a Jewish state. And along the way, Likud has sold its entire national and liberal point of view - I was there - in order to link up politically with the ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu is the father of this sale. He keeps silent about many things, but here it is quite obvious. When it comes to matters of the rule of law or law enforcement, Netanyahu isn't interested, but here it has taken on political expression.

You are saying these things, but yesterday it was reported that you are meeting with the popular rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto.

I am in touch with additional rabbis; I'm broadening. ... I am using the time I have as head of the opposition in order to advance this dialogue, because I am not willing to choose between Tel Aviv and Bnai Brak, for example.

And how much of this is a response to Kadima rival Shaul Mofaz's excellent relations with rabbis?

That's total nonsense. I am doing it without connection to anyone else. I am doing it in order to conduct serious deliberations; I am not concerned with the question of who will vote for whom, how many and why. I have been doing this for many years, in discussions that began in the attempt to create a constitution. These are discussions with content. They are not political. It is a part of Kadima as I fashioned it. Today we are in a situation of becoming one state for a number of tribes.

Including the Palestinians.

There is another Jewish tribe outside the borders of the State of Israel that has ceased to understand what's happening here and feels alienated.

You mean the settlers.

No, no, I mean the Jews in America.

But the settlers also live outside the borders of the state. As you see, that is not how I perceive it. I admit that as long as we have not decided on borders, I do not see them this way. I think that we must decide the question of borders. I have been speaking all these years about Jewish leadership; I speak in public about this need for cooperation without coercion of the individual, and all these discussions I conduct at the same time as arguments with rabbis. Sometimes I say, let's decide on our priorities together: Is the priority the Jewish people and the Jewish state or is it the Greater Land of Israel? There is a political connection together with the religious connection.