Defending Yiddishkeit in the Jewish State: Chareidi MKs Report From the Front Lines

MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman (L) and MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Scheduling a joint interview with UTJ MKs Rabbi Moshe Gafni, Degel HaTorah’s No. 1 candidate, and Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, his Agudas Yisrael counterpart, in the week ahead of the election was not an easy feat.

Rabbi Gafni and Rabbi Litzman, both weathered campaigners and veteran politicians, loyal shluchei d’Rabbanan for many decades, were both on the campaign trail, and we finally caught up with them between rallies.

This interview, as noted, was held ahead of the election. But no matter what — or perhaps if there is— the clear election result, there are plenty of things that still need to be rectified, for the better of chareidi Jewry, and they will both continue to fight tooth-and-nail that we have the opportunity to live as frum Jews with full rights in the Jewish State.

How did you manage to encourage the public to go out once again and vote, for the fourth time in under two years? There’s so much apathy across the country, and even in our communities, people have gotten fed up with the ongoing and endless cycle of election after election.

Rabbi Litzman: Obviously, we are speaking ahead of the election, so we don’t know the results yet, but from what we have noticed in the days ahead of the election is that the public realizes what faces us. True that this is the fourth time — and who knows if we won’t yet move on to a fifth round — but the chareidi public knows what can happen, chalilah, if the chareidi parties don’t have enough political power. Ultimately, the name of the game is to get to 61 MKs for a coalition. All one needs to do is look back at 2013 when the very same Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to take in Yesh Atid over the chareidi parties. That government was a disaster, and it fell after less than two years, but that threat is always at the back — or front — of our minds and the public is aware of the dangers of such a government.

Rabbi Gafni: I would add that we need not go back to 2013, simply go back a few weeks, and the public saw crystal clear what could happen if the chareidi parties don’t have enough power. I am referring to the treacherous ruling of the High Court to recognize conversion by the Reform and Conservative movements. This is a blatant overstepping of their rights of power and a breach in the yichus of Am Yisrael.

If we are weaker, then obviously the other parties have more seats and more power.

Rabbi Litzman: These High Court judges, who are not elected by anyone but themselves, feel free to make any and every decision in regard to Torah and halachah — and sure enough they never are on the side of authentic halachah. They feel that they can knock back any law passed in the Knesset.

Rabbi Gafni: We will demand, as a condition to enter any government, that the coalition pass the Override Clause, to give the power back to the Knesset. And obviously, for this we hope and daven that we, United Torah Judaism, have enough power to pass these changes.

The High Court has passed many laws and rulings against the Torah community, and we need to give the power back to the legally elected politicians.

Ahead of the elections, you both signed with Netanyahu that your party will be loyal to him and stick with him after the elections. What was the need for this and what did he promise in return for this?

Rabbi Litzman: While we have had our ups and downs with Netanyahu — look, he isn’t on the UTJ list, ultimately — in recent years we have had more ups than downs. Since 2015, when he took us and Shas back into the government, he has been pretty loyal to us, and we reciprocated with this signing. Does this mean that when push comes to shove he won’t prefer to take Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu ahead of us? As of now, coming from our experience with him in the last few years, I’d say that he would prefer us to them, and that is why we signed, after consulting with the Gedolei HaTorah.

What is stopping the Likud from implementing the Override Clause? They would also want it for their own needs, and yet, although the Likud has been in power now for over a decade, they have yet to pass it. Why should they pass it now?

Rabbi Gafni: The Likud has talked about this and while they were hemming and hawing about it, at the end of the day, they haven’t passed it, for various reasons. One of the reasons was that former Minister Moshe Kachlon was against it, and he is now no longer on the political map.

But we in UTJ have come to a clear decision that we demand that any government that wants our support must pass this as soon as possible. We are no longer going to wait for things to shlep and keep being pushed out. This is our condition for joining any future government, and we will stand on it.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

You mean like what happened with the Draft Law in the outgoing government?

Rabbi Gafni: Yes, that too. Unfortunately Benny Gantz, who served as Defense Minister, kept pushing us off with various stories. I came over to him several times and told him “Benny, you promised us something.” But to no avail.

Rabbi Litzman: That was one of the very first clauses in the deal between Netanyahu and Gantz [to pass a new Draft Law, on the terms of the chareidi parties], so when Gantz claims that Netanyahu was the one who broke the deal by not passing the two-year budget, he was the first to break it.

We will see to it that a new Draft Law will be passed.

And of course it will be knocked back by the High Court.

Rabbi Litzman: B’ezras Hashem by that time, the Knesset will finally be allowed to pass laws without worry that the High Court will simply, on a whim, overturn it with some legal loophole.

INCITEMENT AGAINST THE CHAREIDIM

Sinas am haaretz to talmidei chachamim is nothing new. At times it is sinah, hate, at times it is kinah, jealousy, but utilizing these emotions are what brings out a large group of the Israeli population to vote. Not for, but against.

In recent years, ever since he had a fall-out with Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman has taken the plunge and exploited this hate. His campaign slogan, “Government Sans Chareidim,” says it all, and no one says a word about hatred to him. He also spoke out in the days before the election, saying that he would send the chareidim and Netanyahu to a garbage dump.

What can be done to stop this?

Rabbi Litzman: This is something unreal, if I would say even half of what Liberman said about us about any other group, say, the Russian immigrants, I would be rightfully asked to apologize or perhaps even more than that. But he gets away with it all. He gets away with it because the media eggs him on as well.

Rabbi Gafni: In the interview where he said he would throw us and Netanyahu in the dump, the interviewers laughed along with him. That is the face of the media in Israel, unfortunately. The minorities — especially the chareidim — are good fodder.

Rabbi Litzman: Following up on what we mentioned earlier, this is something else that we in UTJ will demand from the incoming government — a Discrimination Act, that one cannot speak out against any group, be it chareidim or others. This should be punishable.

Take for example the report, or better said, the fake report, about how 90% of those who manage to enter Israel during the lockdowns are chareidim. In any normal society, these reporters should’ve been suspended. But here in Israel — the Jewish State — they are applauded. That needs to come to an end.

If they only knew that they would be held accountable, they would think twice before releasing such a report. But they know they will be cheered on, so why not?

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A Yisrael Beytenu campaign poster in Tel Aviv reads, “Liberman! A Government Without Chareidim.” (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Does Liberman hate the chareidi community?

Rabbi Gafni: I would term it differently. Liberman is pro-Liberman. Anything and everything that can help that important cause is valid in his eyes. He does hate Netanyahu, and being that we, the chareidi parties, have signed on with Netanyahu and gone together with him for several years, so he joins us in his rant.

How many times did I personally bring him to the homes of Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah for brachos? While it is true that he has changed his colors, I don’t think I would call him a hater. Just give him the opportunity to form a government with the chareidi parties without Netanyahu — he would join in.

All he cares about is himself, not the country and not anyone else, and whatever can help him promote himself is legitimate.

Rabbi Litzman: Reb Moishe, I’d like to differ with you on this. To run such a vicious campaign, with direct slogans against the chareidim, is no slip of the tongue. To knock the chareidi public in every pre-election interview isn’t only against Netanyahu; it’s far more than that. The way he talks, with his nasty tongue, time and again against the chareidim can no longer be considered just trying to project his political agenda, but rather I have come to the sad conclusion that he simply hates us, hates our lifestyle, our yeshivos, our large families. I don’t know what came over him, as he did work hand-in-hand with the chareidi parties for many years, but that’s my unfortunate conclusion.

The stronger we are, the less noise he will be able to make in the next Knesset.

Yet still, how does he manage to get so many hundreds of thousands to vote for him?

Rabbi Litzman: Emotions bring out voters, it’s as simple as that. He has his base of the older Russian immigrants, and there is a large group in Israel that regrettably look during each election for the party that is the most anti-religious. Going back two decades, it was Shinui, headed by Yair Lapid’s father, Tommy, and then it was Yesh Atid who is now fighting over this sad title as to who is more anti-religious.

And then they call it the Jewish State …

CORONA AND THE CHAREIDI COMMUNITY

The coronavirus arrived in Israel just before Purim last year. The chareidi community was hit hard by it, especially in the first weeks, with many niftarim. Bnei Brak was the first city to be placed under curfew last year before Pesach. Throughout the year, the chareidim have been in the spotlight, [described] in the media as those who break the regulations. Many chareidim have been discriminated against after being accused of being spreaders of the virus.

How did we manage to get ourselves in the limelight for such a long time, and is this perhaps what has raised the hatred to our community?

Rabbi Gafni: In your question lies the answer. The media single out, again and again, the chareidi community — but only when it is convenient for them. They’ll find some chareidim who broke the regulations — and they are wrong for doing that — and highlight that, as if they have now found the reason for the spread of the virus.

Yes, the numbers were higher in our cities, but that was due to our larger families and our communal lifestyle. How many people live in one square kilometer in Bnei Brak and how many in the same [amount of space] in Tel Aviv?

And yes, the media managed to find people with black hats and jackets who broke the regulations, but compare the time and the emphasis on that, to that of the Arabs who held weddings and other events during the lockdowns. Did they ever report on the chareidi neighborhoods becoming “green” with as much gusto as when we were “red”? If you’re so “worried” about us and our welfare, you should at least be evenhanded, and report on the good as well. So, this shows that you’re not; rather you want to single us out when convenient.

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An outdoor minyan in Bnei Brak in October 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Rabbi Litzman: This was a very tough year for the chareidi community, vis-à-vis the coronavirus. Our blood became hefker.

What is noteworthy is that Israel, when I still held the Health portfolio, was the first country to cancel flights from China. I pulled that decision through, against all the Foreign Ministry officials. Had the government stopped all the flights then — as they did now ahead of the elections and due to the new variants — as I recommended, things would’ve been totally different here in Israel.

Rabbi Gafni: And although the media was up in arms against the chareidim, did they ever try to understand the chareidi system? Did they ever try to reason with us about the school system, [to understand] that most — if not all — of the chareidi Talmudei Torah and schools didn’t have lessons on Zoom, but on phone and there’s a limit to how long a child can listen to a phone call, all day every day?

Rabbi Litzman: The very same Liberman who spoke out terribly against the Gedolei HaTorah, shlita, for calling to open the yeshivos, called out to “use common sense” and choose which of the coronavirus restrictions to adhere to. Yes, Mr. Liberman, if law is law, then law is law. You can’t pick and choose. And for the record, encouraging stores to be open on Shabbos, chalilah, is also against the bylaws of most cities in Israel.

But since when is Liberman worried about the letter of the law? It only goes one way.

Rabbi Gafni: No matter what the election results are, we will not sit in a coalition together with Liberman. That’s not going to happen. This is one thing that does go two ways: his campaign was “a government without the chareidim” and our commitment is “the chareidim or Liberman.”

Is the situation in Israel reconcilable, after such a tough year?

Rabbi Gafni: Yes, it is, and that is what bothers the media, or most of it, so much. It’s been so ever since the establishment of the State.

There are many out there who are impressed by our way of life. I travel around the country all year and I see it all over. It’s in a way like the Egyptians — we’re coming out for the Pesach issue — said that they are scared that the Bnei Yisrael are growing and expanding, and this is something that the mainstream media can’t allow to happen. So they keep putting the downfalls of the chareidim in the limelight, so that anyone ever considering taking up a Torah lifestyle should be turned off. That is their aim, and any means is kosher to achieve this aim, by hook or by crook.

The coronavirus pandemic fell into their hands like a ripe fruit.

Where did we, as a community, go wrong in this year of corona?

Rabbi Gafni: Who said we did anything wrong? What makes you say that we were wrong? Have you perhaps also been influenced by the media?

Rabbi Litzman: As I said, I think from a professional point of view, had Israel closed the airport, it could’ve stopped or slowed the spread of new cases. But the chareidi community, as a whole, followed the directives as much as possible. You’re asking about individuals? We’re talking about the community, and as a community we were as good as, if not better than, the others.

I also warned that before the Yamim Tovim of Tishrei the government should’ve enforced a lockdown then, to ensure that people would be able to go to daven in their shuls on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the government turned it down and enforced, as I predicted, a lockdown during the Yamim Nora’im.

Rabbi Gafni: Ultimately, if a chareidi who breaches the regulations spreads the disease to the chilonim, when a chiloni does the same thing he hurts the chareidim as well. There’s no two ways about it.

And back to the parable from Egypt, we will continue to be here, from Dan to Eilat, to help all citizens of Israel.

ASSISTANCE FOR ALL

Years ago, there was a stigma that the chareidi representatives are only out to help their constituents. That myth has been proven wrong time and again. Our representatives are known to help anyone and everyone who approaches them and asks for their assistance.

Why are there those who say that the chareidim are sectorial and not there for all?

Rabbi Litzman: Simple, because they aren’t interested in the truth. It’s as simple as that. Just have a look at the things that we do, on a daily basis, all the MKs of UTJ, and anyone looking for the real facts will have their answer.

Here’s an example: Several months ago, even before the elections were called, I passed a special grant of NIS 100,000 for anyone who purchases a second-hand apartment in the periphery. There was a budget set aside for this, to the tune of billions of shekalim, but it was set up and ready to go. Then, all of a sudden, the Finance Ministry advisers called it off. Why? I asked. Because it comes across as bribery for voters. Look how crooked the system is. This grant has nothing to do with whether one is a kippah-wearer or not, and it passed before the elections were called, but because they thought that it might influence some people to vote for UTJ, it was canceled. That’s ludicrous.

Rabbi Gafni: How many factories have I, over the years, as chairman of the Finance Committee, managed to save by passing them major budget sums, or giving them large grants to keep running, without even noticing if the factories are chareidi-owned or not? We are here to help all Israelis, and we will continue to do so. Just the other week, I helped the local bakery in Kiryat Shemona, a factory in Sderot, among other places — without any connection to their level of religion or their voting pattern.

THE FUTURE

Life for the Torah-true Jew in Israel has never been simple. While the country may call itself the Jewish State, it is far from being a Torah-based State.

Where is there still room for improvement, on your behalf and on the government’s behalf? What else can be done?

Rabbi Gafni: As you noted, we are still in galus, among Yidden. But we are trying our best, and we hope the public will give us the strength to continue our battle on their behalf, on behalf of their children, on behalf of their children’s chinuch.

In the future government, should we join, I would like to continue in the position of Chairman of the Finance Committee. I think this is a post that can be of much assistance to all of Israel.

We will also ask for a serious position that can be of assistance to the chareidi public, be it in parnassah or other fields. We will revisit that when the time comes. We will also ask for the heads of other Knesset Committees that we have held in the outgoing government.

Rabbi Litzman: Aside from the things mentioned earlier, I would like to remain in the Housing Ministry.

We will not rest on our laurels until we can all live here in Eretz Yisrael, a life of Torah and Yiddishkeit, without any hindrance, without discrimination, without having to [defend] ourselves.

There’s no reason that we, the Torah-true community, should have to feel inferior in our own homeland. We deserve the same rights, the same budgeting, as the general community, and we will get there, slowly but surely.

B’shem Hashem na’aseh v’natzliach!

Thank you, Rabbi Litzman and Rabbi Gafni, for giving of your time in these crucial days before the election, and let’s daven that when this article is in print, we learn of good results for the chareidi parties and for the country in general.