You started off as a rosh kollel. What dragged you into national politics? How did you become a leader of Degel Hatorah?
Living in Ofakim, with its many Torah institutions, and serving as a rosh kollel, I constantly consulted with Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l on all sorts of matters, generally visiting him about once a week. One Thursday night, in 1989, at 12:30 a.m., when I went to him to discuss a question relating to Ofakim, he said that he wanted me to go to the Knesset. I was certain he had confused me with someone else; I was very young at the time and not all that involved in public affairs. I began suggesting names of other people I considered more suitable for the job. But all he said was, “I know all that, but I want you to go to the Knesset.”
What do you think he saw in you?
I don’t know.
Do you have any particular anecdote you’d like to mention about Rav Shach?
It’s a pity I didn’t write down everything that happened; it would have made a very interesting book.
One story I remember is that after Rosh Hashanah, shortlybefore the elections that placed me in the Knesset for the first time, he asked me to come see him and told me the following: “I was davening on Rosh Hashanah and, for the first time, I could not concentrate on the words of the tefillah. I was saying words without kavanah. The reason was that before my eyes, I saw you standing at the Knesset podium as Shulamit Aloni (an MK with the anti-religious Meretz party) yelled at you, ‘Parasite! Go to the army!’”
(Rav Shach was concerned that this might hint that there would be trouble with Gafni’s army exemption if he stopped learning to go to the Knesset. He urged him to ensure that there would be no legal complications.)
I forgot the story. After I was elected to the Knesset, I got up to speak about the peace process and was saying that we should proceed carefully in the matter, when an MK yelled out at me, “Parasite, go to the army!” It wasn’t Shulamit Aloni. Of course, Rav Shach wouldn’t have looked to see exactly who was speaking. This is recorded in the Knesset minutes.
Regarding current affairs, are you angry at Netanyahu for going along with Lapid and Bennett or do you understand that he had no choice?
I am furious with him; I think he made a mistake. After the elections, he phoned me, he phoned Yachimovich, he phoned Zahava Galon, he phoned Yair Lapid, but he didn’t phone Bennett. This put Bennett under pressure. Netanyahu erred in thinking that the chareidim would enter a coalition together with Lapid. For us, it was inconceivable for the National Religious to be outside the coalition and for us to be in the coalition together with Lapid, especially with imminent challenges, such as the enlistment of yeshiva students and cutting Israel’s budget. But the mistake was made.
The moment Netanyahu made this error, Bennett rose up against Netanyahu and made an agreement with Lapid. This was good for Lapid, as it meant that he could now fight the chareidim and keep them outside the Knesset. It was also good for Bennett, as Netanyahu had no choice but to take him on board as well. So contrary to Netanyahu’s plan to leave Bennett outside, Bennett got inside.
After they made their agreement, did Netanyahu have no choice?
I think he had a choice even then. He should have been tougher. He should have done things to retain his normal approach (of having chareidim in his government). There is no such thing as having no government. In the end, he would have had a government. No one would have gone to new elections. He made the mistake of blinking first. The whole situation isn’t good for him. He doesn’t like it. Especially when Lapid stands up and announces – and he has said this to me as well – that he wants to be prime minister.
Do you think there’s a chance that Netanyahu may throw him out soon and bring in the chareidim?
I don’t know. We are in the opposition and we will continue to be in the opposition, waiting to see developments. We are doing our work. Presently, it is decreed that we should be in the opposition and that is what we are doing.
If you are invited to join the government, would you join?
That is a theoretical question. If there was such an invitation, we would consider it according to the circumstances and obviously go and ask the gedolei hador.
It’s a little surprising that in this government there are more people with yarmulkas than ever before, yet specifically now there are so many problems of anti-chareidism.
The fact that people wear yarmulkas is no guarantee that they will not harm Judaism. In the recent past, it happened many times that people with kippot did the greatest harm to Torah, to Torah institutions, to the chareidi public, and to chinuch. We still remember an attorney general of the Knesset who wore a kippah and did a lot of harm. The kippah is no guarantee when it comes to these matters. Of course, I must mention that this doesn’t apply to everyone, but regarding your question, having more kippot in the government is no guarantee that things can’t be worse.
LAPID WORSE THAN HIS FATHER
Is Yair Lapid to blame for what is happening now? There were signs of trouble beforehand, such as the Plesner Committee, which tried to formulate a law to draft yeshiva students. Netanyahu already cut child stipends in 2004. Is Lapid responsible for the anti-chareidi activism in the government or is it part of a years-long process?
There is indeed a long process of people wanting to cause harm in many matters that involve the chareidi public. It didn’t start with Lapid. But while in power, we put a stop to it. For example, while I was chairman of the Finance Committee, there was an attempt to introduce a clause in the arrangements law that would have cut child stipends. I took that clause and threw it in the garbage. I didn’t even bring it up for discussion. And of course there were other things they wanted to do to harm the Torah world and chareidi education, which I did not allow to happen. We all stood on guard.
Lapid caught the wave of hatred and began leading the incitement. He was the first to start publicizing the episode in Beit Shemesh after his “chareidi” MK brought him a contrived story of chareidim spitting at small girls on Shabbos night. He was a clear leader of incitement in a column he wrote in Yediot Acharonot and a regular Shabbos evening program on Channel 2. He led this incitement and rode the wave. He’s a media man who knows how to attract the public. He doesn’t understand anything about economics, he doesn’t know how to run a country, he doesn’t know how to run public matters, but he knows media. He rode the wave and succeeded – I hope not for long.
You said you think he will fall as his father fell ten years ago. Do you see a comparison between the two of them?
Lapid is worse than his father. Chazal ask why Balak merited to have a parsha in the Torah named after him. They say that this was because he had a virtue – he openly said that he wanted to harm Klal Yisroel. He didn’t soften his words by saying that he liked them. He told Bilam to come along and curse Klal Yisroel. If a person reveals his true intentions, even if they are evil, at least you know with whom you are dealing.
When Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father, fought against us, you could see the hate on his face. We knew that this was his goal – to attack the Torah tzibbur, to harm the Torah, to harm Torah institutions, and to harm chinuch. This was clear. His son doesn’t do that. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that until now, he always said, “I love the chareidim. I am concerned about them. Chas vechalilah,I don’t want to do them any harm.”
He had a mishap last week during his first speech in the Knesset. When we heckled him, all his hate poured out. I wasn’t happy about what happened, but I was very happy about the result. That which was obvious to me beforehand was now seen by the whole world. He hates the religious, but he is worse than his father because he does the act of Zimri and demands the reward of Pinchos.
There is no explanation for the decrees he plans against us except hatred. However, all the time, he veils it in wrappings, justifying what he is doing and saying that he doesn’t hate the chareidim at all.
I’ll give you an example. After his mishap last week, when he revealed his true feelings, I noticed him watching me during a media shoot at the Knesset plenum. The moment he saw the photographers were ready and pointing their cameras, he came to where I was sitting with MK Porush and bent down close to us to be photographed in that stance.
What can you achieve now in the opposition?
A tremendous amount. When we were in the opposition under Olmert, we achieved a lot. The law to provide yeshivos ketanos with no secular learning, with 60% funding of that given to regular high schools, was passed when we were in the opposition. Many of the candidacies of UTJ were spent in the opposition, yet we can count a long list of achievements.
If there is a gezeirah regarding the army, chas veshalom, how will the Torah tzibbur react?
I am not concerned about this. They cannot enlist talmidei hayeshivos by force; there’s no such thing. The main problem is the sanctions against yeshiva financing, which would harm the yeshivos. This, in my opinion, is also a way of applying force. We will have to manage.
We won’t compromise regarding this matter. We will fight with all our strength. We will not cooperate or compromise on anything in this regard, and I hope that, at the end of the day, we succeed. I figure that this government won’t last long. The glue holding it together is already beginning to weaken. This week, I was at a meeting of the monetary council, where MK Doris Druck of Habayit Hayehudi, a resident of Chevron, wanted to revise the preferred tourist zones to include Yehuda and Shomron. Ofer Shelach of Yesh Atid was boiling with fury and the argument between them rose until the heavens.
That disagreement concerned something very small and insignificant. It is reasonable to say that the moment more serious things come up, such as cutting yeshiva funding, which also affects Zionist yeshivos, I know, as I am in contact with the people there, that they won’t go along with it. This will lead to conflict between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid. I needn’t mention that if Secretary of State John Kerry states that the U.S. should proceed with the peace process, the true issues between the two parties will emerge.
My estimate is that since there is no real glue fusing them in any matter, the problems between them will become extreme and there will be no choice but to alter the constituency of the coalition. I do not know if this will happen or not, but, certainly, we will do everything to ensure that yeshiva students can continue to learn and that their budgets are left unharmed.
SUCCESS STIRS UP ENMITY
Last year, you said that the main problem with the economy is ythat a small group controls the country’s financial affairs. Do you think that the claims made against the chareidi population is a cover-up for the people really making the problems?
No one except Yair Lapid and his crowd claim such a thing. There were complaints and incitements against the chareidi public, but they were not blamed for the economy. Lapid spends the whole time trying to turn the anger of rising prices and resentment against a small number of families running the economy against the chareidim. In my opinion, the attempt has failed. People know the truth. It’s not the chareidi community. Secular journalists say that it is ridiculous to waste people’s time with such nonsense.
It is true that the concentration of wealth in the Israeli economy is a very severe problem. I began dealing with it by pushing for the Law of Concentration (of wealth). As part of the Finance Committee of the previous government, we demanded that the government promote the law or we would promote it ourselves. I began dealing with the matter at the end of my previous candidacy. Due to the elections, it was not finished. It should be completed in the coming months.
Regarding the recent ruling that women may legally pray with talleisim at the Kosel, you said at the time of the Emmanuel incident that the courts generally rule against the chareidim. Would you say the same here?
Certainly. Such rulings satisfy two conditions. They go along with public sentiment and they opposed the chareidi public. I have no doubt that Judge Dorit Beinish would not have ruled that the Tal Law exempting talmidei hayeshivos was unconstitutional unless she thought a Knesset majority went along with her. During the Emmanuel story, Judge Edmond Levi ruled according to public sentiment. With the Kossel, this is absolutely clear. Judge Sobel took the ruling of the High Court and turned it upside down because of public sentiment. It would seem that this is also his personal hashkafah.
It is absolutely clear that during all the years before the state was founded and after the Six Day War, the people who looked after the Kosel, the people who were there,were shomrei Torah umitzvos. They davened there day and night, summer and winter, under all conditions. Now, a small group of women comes along with a spurious complaint. Earlier, the High Court ruled to move them to Robinson’s Arch and not allow them to disturb the prayer of the whole tzibbur.
But because there is suddenly a public sentiment that everything is permitted, to attack everything in Judaism that moves, this also reflects on the matter of the Kosel. Three female MKs went there with talleisim. At a meeting of the Committee for Internal Affairs, I asked one of them, “When’s the last time you prayed that you come to pray at the Kosel with prayer shawls?” They do this to attack Judaism.
The judge came along with the same public sentiment and said that the recommendation of the High Court was not absolute and that the situation and minhag hamakom has changed. Anyone who has learned anything knows the meaning of minhag hamakom. If a female MK who never prayed in her life comes along to the Kosel to attack religion and disturb the public… Public sentiment and power turned the judge’s mind.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in the Knesset?
There is no one greatest achievement. It is a long process. I and my colleagues began working in the Knesset in 1989, and if one sees the miraculous growth of Torah in Israel, which I do not think existed since the days of Yechezkel ben Buzi and certainly didn’t exist in Europe before the Holocaust, if one sees the development of Torah chinuch, if one sees the tremendous kiruv of the public to Judaism, it leaves one amazed. It’s a chessed of Hashem.
I can’t point specifically to Chinuch Atzmai, yeshivos, Beis Yaakovs, kiruv, Keren Nesivos Moshe to establish schools, and Shuvu for Jews who immigrated from Russia, and everything else.
There is no one thing. There is a process. If one looks at what existed twenty years ago and what exists today, one sees a different country and a different Jewish public than that which existed here beforehand.
Indeed, the very attack raised against the chareidim is because we have been so successful. Today, in every place, there is a shul, a talmud Torah, a kollel, anda yeshiva. Even on kibbutzim there are shuls and mikva’os. I provided money for a mikvah at the large air force base at Ubda, near Eilat,and it was completed. Such things didn’t exist in past years. More and more of the public is drawing near to Judaism. The atheist minority knows that this begins with the chareidi tzibbur and the yeshiva talmidim who are the heart of Judaism and is waging an all-out cultural war against them. Everything we do to deal with them is a question of tactics. Strategically, we are the target of an all-out cultural war. We must not forget this.