My Israeli friends in New York have been asking me to voice an opinion on the recent elections, as if my opinion could somehow have an effect, or even change the results. I suppose it’s natural that, as Israeli expatriates, they still feel a keen interest in local affairs in Eretz Yisrael. And I imagine that they are especially interested in the coalition talks and the ramifications for the battle for Torah study in Israel. They want to know: what will be with the yeshivah draft? Is it true that the yeshivos will empty out and that thousands of bochurim will be shipped off to the draft office?
Well, I don’t know what to tell them. And I’ll tell you a little secret: nobody knows what’s going to be once negotiations are over, not even Bibi Netanyahu, who now faces the uneviable task of assembling a new government.
What I can write about are the numerous ironies and paradoxes that have arisen from the elections, not all of which spell doom.
To date, we do not know what sort of government the weakened Bibi Netanyahu will manage to cobble together. Of course the Torah community is deeply concerned over the future of the yeshivos, but these worries are preventing many of us from seeing a broader, most ironic and even positive picture. In many ways the recent elections have changed the face of Israeli society, some say for the better and some say otherwise. Is the cup half-full or half-empty?
One of the fascinating facts about the new makeup of the Knesset is the increased number of kippah-wearing MKs. There are now forty or more MKs who consider themselves openly religious. That is at least one-third of the parliament. There should be no problem getting a minyan for Minchah while the Knesset is in session.
Ironically, nearly every party -- excluding the Arab parties and the Communists -- has prided itself on the one or more religious members gracing its list. Nothing more need be said about the Likud; it has always drawn in a more or less religious element, and this has been a constant thorn in the side of the chareidi parties who feel that the Likud magnet has worked to their detriment. But in this year’s elections other parties, even those that have historically always been considered anti-religious -- such as the Labor Party in its various incarnations -- have recruited religious members and boasted of their own MKs who bear the title of “rabbi”. And far from being thrusted out of the limelight, these rabbis have been proudly showcased within their parties and to the public as an integral part of the Knesset list.
I, for one, feel this is a refreshing change. It tells us that the kippah on the head of an MK does not, in and of itself, frighten the secular public in Eretz Yisrael the way it once did. Two weeks ago Yair Lapid, head of the celebrated new Yesh Atid party, declared publicly and unabashedly that he believes in G‑d and in Divine involvement in earthly affairs, a departure from the faith of his father, Tommy Lapid, who was an avowed atheist. A journalist from the left-leaning Haaretz once told me that in her opinion, Tommy Lapid didn’t hate the chareidim so much as he looked down on them pityingly, considering them victims of some mass delusion. Yet his beloved son Yair is standing up and bareheadedly declaring his adherence to that very “delusion.” How that belief affects his personal life, if at all, is not the question now. The point is that he felt he could make such a statement without fear of losing the election, and that attests to a change in the public’s attitude. In the past, one such remark by a candidate could have lost him any chance of sitting in the Knesset.
Is this a positive development or a negative one? It could be interpreted either way. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that something major is going on behind the scenes, and Hashem alone knows what it is.
Thirty or forty years ago, a man with a yarmulke in a secular Israeli political party was like a crumb of bread on erev Pesach — bal yeraeh u’bal yimatzei. Muktzeh machamas miyus. Looking back to the early years of the state, the government was looking for a suitable candidate for the presidency of Israel after the death of Chaim Weizmann. One of the leading candidates was the eminently qualified Dr. Mordechai Nurock, a member of the first Knesset for the United Religious Front (an alliance of Mizrachi, Hapoel HaMizrachi, Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael) and the first Minister of Postal Services in David Ben-Gurion's government. But he lost the presidency to Mapai's Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, after Ben-Gurion allegedly told him, “The kippah on your head makes it impossible for you to be president of the Jewish State.”
Those were the days. The Jewish People had returned to their ancestral land and set up an independent state of their own, and no one who wore a kippah could be admitted into the inner sanctum of the state’s leadership. Such was the atmosphere that prevailed for decades.
Today, I can’t imagine that a kippah would stand in the way of a candidate for the presidency. But it might still depend on what kind of kippah. A knitted kippah would surely be okay, as long as it wasn’t one of those ultra-religious soup-bowl style ones identified with the “militant” right. And a black yarmulke? Probably not. Still, we’ve come a long way, when a kippah is totally acceptable in high places.
On the whole, though, is this increase in the religious level of Israel’s parliament a cause for rejoicing? This is where the irony comes in: nearly all of these new recruits, including those who boast rabbinical credentials, are united behind the initiative to dismantle the Torah world as it exists today in Eretz Yisrael. Some are even more vocal than their secularist colleagues in their patriotic fervor for “equal sharing of the burden,” a policy to be imposed on those citizens currently carrying the spiritual burden of the country’s survival — the lomdei Torah. It causes me personal great pain to see how Jews who daven every day for Redemption and are conscious of mitzvah observance, have become accomplices in the threat to silence the voice of full-time Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael. How many they want to conscript into the army is not the issue. Five thousand? Ten thousand? Is there some sort of quota that will have to be filled? Whether it’s some or all of the bnei Torah, this poses the real threat to our nation’s security. Here we are, with such a threat hanging over our heads, while at the same time there have never been so many yarmulkes in the Knesset corridors. And that is the most frightening irony of all.
Food for Thought
Someone who prays today just because he prayed yesterday
— a rasha is better than him
(Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)