Tu Bishvat, which falls this year on Shabbat, symbolizes renewal. The rabbis
referred to the day as the New Year of the Trees because it marks the beginning
of the agricultural cycle for certain types of biblically commanded
Tu Bishvat has also become a sort of Jewish Arbor Day ever since
Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, a founder of the Mizrachi movement who came to Israel in the
First Aliya, began the practice of planting trees, in 1890. The Keren Kayemeth
LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which celebrates its 111st birthday this year,
continued the tradition, first planting eucalyptus trees in the Hula Valley to
help dry the swamps and stamp out malaria, and later organizing major
tree-planting campaigns that today involve more than a million Israelis
Potent with notions of setting down roots and new beginnings,
it is only fitting that Tu Bishvat has become known as the Knesset’s birthday.
It was on the 15th of Shvat (February 14), 1949, that the First Knesset convened
at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, though subsequent Knesset plenum
meetings took place in Tel Aviv at either the Kessem Cinema or the San Remo
With the results from the election for the 19th Knesset just in,
this year’s message of new beginnings has added poignancy. As the Knesset
celebrates its 64th birthday, a new government coalition is in the making that
will lead the nation during the next four years – assuming the coalition goes
the distance. And there are an extraordinarily high number of freshmen
politicians entering the Knesset, further emphasizing a general feeling of
renewal and rejuvenation.
Indeed, one of the central messages sent out by
voters was their desire to see new, fresh faces in the Knesset. This was
reflected in the astounding success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and to a
lesser extent in Bayit Yehudi’s impressive showing.
As promised by Lapid,
the party list included only those never “tainted” by national politics.
Apparently, the idea of an entire party made up of untried politicians –
including a 32-year-old judo champion and a 31-year-old journalist who will be
the first Ethiopian woman to serve in the Knesset – defied the classic
left-wing/right-wing dichotomy. The list also lacked the baggage of messy
political wheeling and dealing and was, therefore, very refreshing for many
It remains to be seen whether the new forces entering the
Knesset will succeed in making an impact. Lapid and the other members of his
list are undoubtedly acutely aware of the fickle nature of constituents who vote
en masse for the next hot “centrist” party and just as quickly pull their
support. The implosion of Kadima is a perfect example. Lapid et al know that
unless they make good on at least some of their promises, a similar fate awaits
Armed with this impetus, Lapid and his party have a good chance of
fulfilling at least one promise: passing a law that ends the mass exemptions
from mandatory military service for haredi men. Journalist Ofer Shelah, No. 6 on
Yesh Atid’s list, has already spearheaded the drafting of a detailed five-year
plan for gradually enlisting haredi men in either military or national service.
Only a small, elite corps of Torah scholars will be given
With the creation of a new government coalition, a unique
opportunity has arisen to right an historic wrong and begin a process where tens
of thousands of able-bodied ultra-Orthodox men are placed on a path toward
gainful employment after first fulfilling their obligation to the state like
other Jewish citizen.
The most logical government coalition would include
Likud Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi. While there might be some dissent
between Yesh Atid and the other two parties regarding the peace process, all
three parties favor ending haredi exceptionalism. If Shas can be included as a
partner, it would add important credence as haredi men are gradually shepherded
from the yeshiva to the military/national service.
Tu Bishvat is a time
of new beginnings. We celebrate the agricultural cycle and our Knesset’s
birthday, and we have the added value this year of a new crop of politicians who
will form a new government coalition. We hope we will also soon witness a new
approach to how our national and economic burdens are shared.