Chareidi MKs Reflect on the Twentieth Knesset

Last week, on Monday and Tuesday, the Knesset conducted a legislative blitz. On the previous Wednesday, the Knesset had voted by an overwhelming majority to dissolve itself. I listened as Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, read results: “Members of the Knesset in favor – 102. There are two opposed, and no abstentions. The proposal to dissolve the Twentieth Knesset has been approved, as required by law, in three readings. It is my hope that the election campaign will be clean and fruitful. I wish everyone success, and may the Twenty-First Knesset be purer and more prosperous.”

Before the vote took place, there was a lengthy discussion in which dozens of MKs addressed the Knesset. Some of the speakers were people who will be leaving the Knesset, but all of them felt that it was appropriate to speak about their own accomplishments, to inform the public of what they have done for the country and to ask the people for their trust. The speakers included members of the Knesset from the chareidi parties – Agudas Yisroel, Degel HaTorah, and Shas.

Asher Slams Lapid

The first speaker was Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah.

“Mr. Speaker,” Asher began, “we are heading into elections. In our citizenship class in cheider, we were taught that an election is an opportunity for every citizen to vote for a party with a path and a worldview that suits him. Unfortunately, there are some parties whose approaches and views cannot be accurately ascertained, since they constantly change. Last week, we witnessed Yair Lapid make an about-face; I will tell you exactly what happened there.

“When the draft law was first introduced by the defense ministry, Lapid jumped on the bandwagon, as usual, and tried to appropriate it for himself as if it was his own law, even though every child knew that he was lying once again. Several hours later, with the help of his media advisors, he realized that he had made the greatest mistake of his life. If the law passed, he would no longer have anything to sell; he would no longer be able to incite and to conduct hate campaigns in order to attain the office of prime minister.

“Mr. Speaker, this reminds me of the story about the renowned attorney who went away on vacation and left his son to run his office in the interim. When he came back, his son came over to him and excitedly informed him, ‘Abba, you had a case that you were working on for twenty years, and I managed to resolve it for you.’ His father replied, ‘Fool! I have been living off that case for twenty years! How could you close it?’ That is precisely what happened here.

“From Yair Lapid’s perspective, the draft law is a means of gaining mandates; it is nothing more than that. What was he going to do now that the issue was about to be resolved? I will tell you what he did: He found a solution. Did you hear his dire proclamations last week about the funds that were promised to chareidim, that were reserved for chareidim, and that were transferred to chareidim? It was like a blood libel from the dark days of our history, lacking any truth or logic, which was designed solely for him to be able to retract his support for the law. Indeed, the law did not pass. I thank MK Lapid for the fact that the law in this form did not pass. In the next government, b’ezras Hashem, we will fix it and will pass a law that will recognize the value of Torah learning as is appropriate in a Jewish state.

“During this term, many socially minded laws were passed. We worked to assist small businesses, to address the rising cost of living, to minimize fatalities on the roads, and to provide [government-sponsored] stipends, day care centers, and babysitting programs. United Torah Judaism worked hand in hand with other parties in order to erase the legacy of the two wretched years when the finance minister was an apathetic failure.” This, of course, was a reference to Yair Lapid. “I refer you to all the speeches delivered by MK Tamar Zandberg and MK Stav Shapir about Yair Lapid’s period as Minister of Finance,” Asher added. “He was a failed finance minister, who knew nothing other than to perform feats of acrobatics.”

Eicher Speaks Out Against the Courts

The next chareidi speaker was MK Yisroel Eichler, the Belzer representative in Agudas Yisroel. Eichler had asked for an earlier time slot for his speech, so that he would have time to travel to his father’s kever in Meron before the end of the day. “Today is my father’s yahrtzeit,” he announced at the beginning of his address, “and we are going to the kever for a memorial service. That is why I asked to move up my speech, and I thank you for permitting it.

“Regarding the dissolution of the Knesset, I would like to tell you, gentlemen, that there were many dark sides to this Knesset, which everyone has spoken about. But I would like to take a minute to discuss some of the positive aspects, some of the great lights of this Knesset, things that I do not remember existing during previous terms of the Knesset – and I am referring to the social legislation. I do not remember any other Knesset that has been as good about enacting positive social legislation.

“In this Knesset, Hashem granted me the privilege of serving as the chairman of the Public Petitions Committee. I discovered there that there are two worlds: There is the political world, which fumes and rages over big things – ideological issues, foreign affairs, national security, chareidim and chilonim, discrimination between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and so forth. Then there are the needs of the people, which are identical or similar in every part of the nation.

“One of those needs is housing. We promised to provide apartments. I want to say that in the first year of this government, when we had a coalition of 61, there were some very good and beautiful things that emerged in this area. Moshe Kachlon, the Minister of Finance, came into office with a lot of good intentions, and he began dealing with the issue of housing. He told us that we could test him in this area. Now, it wasn’t only Moshe Kachlon, or the Treasury, or the people who planned this; all of us failed. The younger generation does not have a roof over its head. Yesterday, our committee discovered, through the research and information center of the Knesset and the Ministry of Housing, that an extremely serious error was made in the Buyer’s Price program: Apartments were sold before the developers had even submitted requests for construction permits. In order to remove tens of thousands of young couples from the market, prices were lowered and apartments were essentially handed out. But those apartments were illusory.”

The Knesset speaker urged Eichler to wrap up his remarks, and he complied. “Our main problems are eliminating bureaucracy, Mr. Speaker, and, as you mentioned, the issue of the Supreme Court. We wanted – as everyone wanted – to return the power to the parliament, the government, the public, and democracy. A judicial dictatorship has been created here, and in the next Knesset, even if the left wins – although I think that the right will win and that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, with the only question being who his partners will be – our first agenda must be for the courts and the judicial system to deal with judicial matters, for the government to rule the country, and for the Knesset to deal with oversight and legislation. Thank you.”

Maklev Speaks Up for the Chareidim

Another speech was delivered by Uri Maklev of Degel HaTorah. After greeting the members of the Knesset, Maklev said, “Many predicted that this Knesset would not survive even one year, that it would not last long, but we have been here for four years. This may have been one of the longest serving Knessets. But you know, Mr. Speaker, people come up to me, both here and outside, and they tell me, ‘You aren’t acting as if you are leaving.’ Maybe we are made of unusual stuff. Maybe this is something for psychologists to research. But I think that the reason is that we do not have primaries….

“Now, we may not have official primaries,” Maklev added, “but for us, it is always primary season. A person doesn’t have to pay a membership fee to the party in order to have influence. Any person who is part of chareidi society, who follows its ways and shares its ideology and faith, and who sends his children to its schools, is capable of having influence. And those people have us under close scrutiny. In any event, this is a time for introspection, a time to review our accomplishments. As a member of the coalition – but I think I would feel the same way if I was part of the opposition – I feel that the government has done many good things, without a doubt, in the social sense, in the humanitarian sense, and in terms of its reforms.

“But I cannot avoid mentioning the things that we did not manage to complete, the things that were not perfect, the things that still remain to be done. I would like to speak about the rise in prices, which demands much more aggressive government involvement. We are on the verge of descending into a period of skyrocketing prices. The finance minister has done his part. At this time, during this twilight period, the large companies and monopolies cannot be allowed to do as they please. We are in a decline and we are witnessing a snowball effect, which could lead to economic catastrophe.

“Beyond that, there is another issue: the price of housing. The issue of affordable housing was the flagship cause of the finance minister and, perhaps, of the entire coalition. They were not successful in dealing with it, but I do not have a specific grievance against them. I think that they did a lot. It is possible that it wasn’t sufficient, or it wasn’t broad enough, or that things were done too late and all at once. We can analyze it all in retrospect, but I can’t say that nothing was done. A lot of money was invested in this.

“There is, however, one thing that I can say: The chareidi public, which is in distress no less than anyone else – and perhaps more so – did not have its needs addressed. There was no interest in doing that. There was much talk, but there was no action. For that, it would have been necessary to make accommodations. Everyone knew exactly what needed to be done to resolve the chareidi housing crisis. The crisis for the chareidim affects the economy as well; it prevents prosperity.

“MK Gafni noted, and I agree with him, that the railway company violated halacha; it violated the laws of the Torah and the laws of the country by performing construction on Shabbos, and it did not prosper. They wanted the train to begin running quickly, and so they worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They violated workers’ rights and committed other infractions, all in order to become the winners and to have the train begin running quickly.

“Yet not only did they fail in that regard, but the opposite also took place: The people who did those things are now being forced to resign. Those people are not being hailed for what they did; they are being criticized for it. The same applies to the cost of housing. From the beginning, we said repeatedly that it was unacceptable for the government to claim to be addressing the crisis regarding the issue of housing but to bypass such a large sector of the population in such a blatant way. It is impossible to succeed through trampling the rights of the community and of individuals.”

Vaknin Calls Out the Hypocrites

One of the speeches was delivered by Yitzchak Vaknin, who was a Knesset member at the time and has since become a government minister. “Some of you aren’t going to be here in the next Knesset,” Vaknin commented to his colleagues. “Why are you in such a rush to dissolve it?” Vaknin himself has already declared that he does not plan to serve in the Knesset after the election. He has been a member of the country’s parliament for 23 years, and feels that he has completed his task there.

“Mr. Speaker and my friends, members of the Knesset,” Vaknin began, “I have a practical suggestion for you. I am prepared to wager that if we did this, the Knesset would never have dissolved itself. I have been hearing all the talk here, as the members of the Knesset have made very harsh statements. But if we were to hold an anonymous vote, 100 members of the Knesset would certainly vote against moving up the elections. Is anyone willing to bet against me?”

“Yes!” someone shouted.

Vaknin turned to him and said, “Don’t be so sure of yourself. I am telling you that over 100 people would vote against it. Over 100! I am saying that seriously.

“My friends, do not flex your political muscles,” he continued. “I would like to say the following: You are all in a state of euphoria at this time, but half of the Labor party – the Zionist Camp – will not be returning here. Half of the Likud also will not be returning here…. We can all see the situation as it is. Aren’t we effectively committing political suicide? This is the reality in this parliament. I can say this with more confidence than any other member of the Knesset, since over the seven or eight terms that I have been here, I have never experienced a single full term of the Knesset. It has always been two or three years, or two and a half.

“Imagine that: I am here for 23 years in the Knesset…. It is as if there is some sort of worm inside of our bodies that is eating at us. It is our ego. We come here with pride, and then everything falls apart. I sit with my colleagues at meetings – and I am saying this truthfully – and some of them say to me, ‘Yitzchak, I am in tenth place in the primaries. What will become of us?’”

Yael German of Yesh Atid, the former Minister of Health, called out, “Itzik, do you want to continue? Do you think this government is capable of continuing?”

“I don’t want to remain in the Knesset at all,” Vaknin said. “Don’t you understand what I am saying? I don’t want to continue here; I am not speaking about my own personal interests. I am simply speaking the truth, because I believe that there is only one absolute truth. We are all presenting a very bleak picture of the situation, but I don’t think that the current government was as bad as you have described it. The Israeli economy is not collapsing. Why are you painting everything black? You were in the previous government as well, weren’t you? Let us be true parliamentarians, not people with slick tongues; we must understand that governments come and go. I wish you all continued success.”

Malchieli Decries Discrimination

The next speaker was MK Michoel Malchieli of Shas, a former member of the Yerushalayim city council, and an industrious and hardworking lawmaker. “Israel’s Knesset is dissolving itself today,” he said, “just as my colleague MK Vaknin said, whether it is voluntary or against its will. When I look at the accomplishments of the Shas party, and I think about the hundreds of thousands of constituents who sent us here, I tell myself with great pride that we made a promise, and we fulfilled it. I tell myself with pride that Shas went into the last election with a promise to help the ‘invisible’ members of society – the disadvantaged – and many people said to us, ‘Why are you involving yourselves in an issue that no one else is willing to touch?’

“But, boruch Hashem, Shas entered into a coalition agreement that helped with some very important issues, such as the positions in the Civil Service Commission that are supposed to be earmarked for the chareidi community. Over the years, promises have been made, and people have demanded answers as to why the chareidi community wasn’t integrating into the work force, but when the chareidim wanted jobs, they were blocked from being employed. But Shas kept its promise, and a law was passed in the Knesset that requires seven percent of the positions in the Civil Service Commission to be designated for chareidim.

“We also can’t ignore the many millions of shekels from the Shas coalition funds. There is no precedent for a party in the Knesset using its own coalition funds for subsidized public transportation, subsidies for the cost of water, and property tax reform. Gentlemen, we are concluding this term with tremendous pride, and our message to the ‘invisible’ people in Israeli society is that we promised to help them, and we have given them what we promised.

“But despite all the celebration, despite the thousands of people who are enjoying these benefits and are pleased with them, and despite these massive reforms, the truth must be told: There are areas, unfortunately, in which the State of Israel has failed. The fact that a university student receives a subsidy for public transportation and a yeshiva bochur doesn’t – that is a failure. The fact that a student receives a discount on his payments to the National Insurance Institute, while a yeshiva bochur of the same age does not – that is also a failure. The fact that a chareidi child who studies in a recognized but unofficial school under the supervision of the State of Israel receives less than he deserves, that the government is not living up to its commitments – that, too, is a failure. The fact that a chareidi child does not receive the same type of preschool facility as a non-chareidi child is yet another failure.”

Saida: The Bnei Torah Protect Us

Dani Saida of the Shas party is a relatively new member of the Knesset. He is a resident of Ohr Haganuz, a settlement located near Meron, and is intimately acquainted with the area. He owns a large vineyard and produces wine. In fact, he looks more like a farmer than a member of the Knesset. He doesn’t even look chareidi. But when he spoke, everyone was stunned by the sentiments he expressed.

“At this time,” Saida said, “I am completing my first year as a member of the Knesset on behalf of the Shas party, the party of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, which is headed by the great Chacham Shalom Cohen, and the members of the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah, who have appointed the bnei Torah to serve as the protectors of the people of Israel. I would like to use this occasion to ask everyone, in advance of the election campaign that lies ahead of us, to internalize the fact that the bnei Torah are the shields of the Jewish people in every generation, and to accord them all the respect that they deserve. Please do not use the upcoming election campaign to harm our precious bnei Torah.

“When I was sworn in, I mentioned that I served in the IDF for a period of three years, and then in the reserves for another 25 years, in some of the most trying and dangerous places. I even lost my commanding officer, Colonel Avraham Chido Hy”d. Almost all of my colleagues in this party also served in the IDF in a variety of capacities; in combat units, and not in the IDF magazine Bamachaneh.” That was a jab at Yair Lapid, who spent his time in the army as a correspondent for Bamachaneh. “My children also served in the most elite units in the IDF,” Saida added, “and one of my sons was even wounded during a military operation.

“During my time in the Knesset, I have been exposed to the activities of the members of this parliament, to its broad range of legislation and to the activities of its committees, where the quality and nature of the work left me agape and filled with admiration. During this period, I have also been exposed to the incredible abilities of my fellow party members, beginning with the chairman of the party, Rabbi Aryeh Deri, who is an outstanding talmid chochom and a wise man of a caliber that the State of Israel has not seen in many years. Rabbi Deri works tirelessly, day and night, as the responsible adult in the government and the cabinet, advocating for the Torah world and for the weak and disadvantaged.” Saida went on to heap accolades on the other members of the Shas party.

He concluded his speech with a comment about the state of agriculture in Israel, an area that he had assumed the responsibility to promote in the Knesset. “My colleagues in the Shas party and I will work to preserve the status of the family farm, with all its proven benefits, and to see to it that agriculture, which is one of the cornerstones of the preservation of our country’s borders and food supply, will not be harmed. Thank you very much.”

Moses: The Government Has Failed

I’ll conclude with excerpts from remarks of two other Knesset members. One is Yinon Azulai of the Shas party. “During this term, in which my father zt”l was a participant,” Azulai said, “we fought to preserve our traditions at the Kosel Hamaaravi, so that the holy site would not be defiled. We fought to prevent the passage of a conversion law in which we do not believe, which would have led thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people to be labeled as Jews, many of whom are not Jewish at all. Members of the Knesset, we will soon be heading to elections. Please do not use us, the chareidim, as pawns for your political games. We will not be anyone’s punching bag. We are strong. We have our own ways. We have our own leaders, and we have our own work. Anyone who does not wish to work should not be part of the next Knesset. Thank you.”

Then there was Menachem Eliezer Moses, a member of Agudas Yisroel and a Vizhnitzer chossid, who pointed out one of the greatest failures of the current government (as well as its predecessor). “I would like to speak about an opportunity that was missed during this term,” he said. “That was with regard to solving the housing crisis in general, and the crisis within the chareidi community in particular. The Ministry of Housing has said that there is a shortage of about 100,000 residential units for chareidim, and we are aware of that. Look at the way people are living – in primitive conditions, in storage rooms and converted parking lots, and so forth. There are places where walls have been built to enclose tiny areas, and entire families live there…. In conclusion, I would like to say this: We are now heading into elections. I hope that with Hashem’s help, we will be victorious in the elections, and then we will know how to protect ourselves. I ask you: Please go into this election without hatred, without division, without incitement – without all the things that took place during the previous election campaign. With Hashem’s help, we will then be successful.”

Clash in the Knesset

There was one particularly embarrassing moment during the lengthy discussion. MK Sofa Landver, a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisroel Beiteinu, served until recently as the Minister of Immigrant Absorption; along with the rest of her party, she is now in the opposition. During her speech, she said the following: “I would like to tell you something, sir. All of us in the State of Israel understand this: What brought down this government was the draft law, and we all know it. Mr. Speaker, I cannot understand why a thug with a yarmulke on his head cannot serve in the army….”

I don’t think she meant to describe all chareidim as thugs; I believe that she was trying to say that she cannot understand why a healthy chareidi youth isn’t obligated to enlist in the army. Nevertheless, the Knesset sitting was being chaired by Yisroel Eichler at that time, and he demanded that she retract her statement, which she refused to do.

“I am going to file a complaint with the Ethics Committee,” Eichler warned her.

“Go ahead and file one,” Landver replied.

“You can’t call any citizen a ‘thug,’ just as you wouldn’t want anyone to call a Russian a thug,” Eichler said.

Landver replied, “I am asking why only some of the people are obligated to serve, are obligated to work, are obligated….”

“Your time is up,” Eichler cut her off. “Please step down.”

“My time is not up,” Landver insisted. “You took some of my time, and you must allow me to speak.”

Eichler refused, and he ordered the female ushers to remove her from the podium.

“I will not step down!” Landver insisted. “You cannot make me step down from here, and you cannot silence me.”

“You will not continue speaking now,” Eichler replied. “I am asking you to step down. You will not call any chareidi a thug!”

“Gentlemen,” Landver said, “this is an embarrassment to the chareidim. You should be serving the State of Israel just like any other youth who grew up here, who was born here or who came here as an immigrant. All of us have an obligation to serve the State of Israel.”