In the past, when I voted in Israeli elections and then confessed my choice, I had an urge to take a cleansing plunge in the local mikveh (ritual bath). That is when, out of concern for who could wage war most effectively, I chose a politically rightist party or, worried about secularization, I went for a dogmatic religious movement. This time I rejected a party that was both right and religious, and went center-left—and so did my observant children who served in “good” army units, study humanities at Hebrew University, and learn Torah; and my writer wife who yells at the radio when they report the latest neighborhood contretemps: “With them we are supposed to make peace?” We all went center-left and secular and voted for Lapid’s Yesh Atid. And the wonder is, we are still happy about it several weeks later. Let me explain why.
We just couldn’t vote for Likud. Their ousting of the last Jabotinsky gentlemen and honest brokers—Michael Eitan, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin—only meant the ascent of champions of fascism, especially Moshe Feiglin, a Meir Kahana wannabe minus the charisma and brilliance. Our illusions of a tough yet enlightened Likud deflated, particularly when the marriage with thuggish Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu seemed less a convenience than a meeting of soul mates. Their inevitable linking with the far religious right who could care less for their nonobservant brothers made us shudder.
Naftali Bennett and his new party, The Jewish Home, were quite attractive. He and his band are untainted by political skullduggery and economic interest, not to mention accusations of theft. They represented strength and religious values. But Bennett, a religious IDF commander and self-made multimillionaire, failed us miserably on two leadership issues. He stated flatly that there would never be peace with the Palestinians. That “honest” assessment relieves the frustration many Israelis feel in their hearts about peace possibilities—and I understand, but deplore the emotion. Not only is it suicidal, both as a local policy and in the court of world opinion—it is also flatly forbidden by Jewish law. Maimonides, based on the Torah, codified 800 years ago: “You must not wage war with anyone in the world unless you first cry out to him “peace,” whether it is an optional war or a commanded war (of defense)…” Bennett heretically made a sham of that unequivocal law. Bennett further failed the test of ethical leadership when he affirmatively allowed for religious soldiers to opt out of possible evacuation orders of Jews. This is a hard situation religious soldiers will certainly face and with Bennett they will not have a leader who can help them make the proper choice for duty, peace, and unity.
We were drawn to Lapid’s party out of the intuition that it and especially its middle-class constituency have the combination of being both tough on security and able to look for and make an agreement with the Palestinians. They are risk averse where it counts, but by nature are attracted to a deal. And eventually it will only be a deal that will bring us to a solution; for this we need tough non-ideological negotiators. And communicators. That is where Yair Lapid himself, ultra-media personality, comes in.
But above all we voted for Lapid because of his party’s embrace of a central tenet of the Social Revolution that hit Israeli streets this past year: Shivyon BaNetel—Equality in Sharing the Burden. In short, the ultra-Orthodox population must be educated, serve their country, work and pay taxes like all other adults. The conspiracy of infantilization through addictive albeit inadequate entitlements forced upon them by their benighted leadership and coalition-hungry secularists has led to disastrous poverty, and alienation from a general society that is ready to really punish them. More painful is that a wide swath of the haredi population is ready and desirous for a more complete life. They know the teaching of Maimonides: “It is the way of people with understanding that a person should first establish for himself a livelihood that supports him, then he should acquire a house, and then he should marry a woman.” They fear indices such as an alarming rise in divorce, as men who never learned the notion of fending for their families just abandon them. The haredi leadership is ready to gallop at full speed over this religious fiscal cliff. Someone has to let them know that there is no parachute to ease their descent when they hit sheer air.
And even more painful yet is that haredi orthodoxy has great potential for contributing to the larger community. There is brainpower, passion, and a wealth of Jewish knowledge. But when directed inward, that lifeblood tends to congeal, while exposed to rigorous movement it can offer sustaining power.
It’s not that I don’t fear a hyper-secular Israel. But even Yair Lapid recognizes that that is no longer a good bet for a Jewish future. He and his party, which includes the creator of a moderate group of Orthodox rabbis at number 2 and a haredi rabbi who stood up to extremists in his neighborhood at number 17, have gone beyond this. But a future of unreflective rightist and hyper-anti-culture religionists is a poisonous recipe. We were forced to Yesh Atid, and though we don’t know where coalition talks will take us, we remain strangely happy about our choice. And we are not alone.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.