United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told members of the Labor Party that he was
praying to God that they would join the government coalition, during a Knesset
plenum speech that gained much publicity, in which he was the veteran MK
welcoming a newcomer to the parliament: Merav Michaeli of Labor.
said that she had requested that Gafni follow her.
Gafni began by saying
that he had expected to cringe when he heard the new Labor MK speak. Instead, he
said, he agreed with almost everything she said.
For me, as someone who
has covered the Knesset on a day-to- day basis since the late 1980s, it brought
back memories of other classic moments where – perhaps at first glance – those
who are the furthest apart in our society, haredim and supposed antagonists who
might be labeled secular leftist socialists, have expressed understanding and
even friendship for one another.
Anyone who has covered the Knesset over
the course of time knows that behind the scenes, MKs cooperate and even
socialize in a way that might shock the outside world considering the
differences that these politicians represent.
Still, the Michaeli-Gafni
encounter, not in the cafeteria but live on television in the plenum, took me
back 20 years to a New Year’s Eve state budget debate when the late MK Rabbi
Avraham Ravitz, of UTJ, took to the plenum microphone and passionately deplored,
with tears in his eyes, the phenomenon of a celebration in the building of a
Jewish parliament on an occasion that in past decades and centuries had been
used by drunken anti-Semites to assault, murder and massacre Jews.
the celebrants, Ofir Pines of – yes – the Labor Party, asked for “the floor,”
He said that he had no idea that the New Year’s Eve toast
would emit such emotions, adding that the get-together was just a
behind-the-scenes excuse to have a good time amid the tedious seemingly endless
Maybe it was the after-midnight hour that seems to make
everything more emotional and dramatic, but the way Ravitz and Pines walked away
with mutual understanding made me feel that life in this country could be so
much better if we just respected – no, not agreed with – one
Then, there was the weekly Wednesday question time, during the
late 1980s’ Labor-Likud unity government, when a number of MKs, including the
likes of Mapam MK Yair Tzaban, launched what could be described as nothing less
than a verbal assault on then-police minister Haim Bar-Lev, after a haredi MK
complained that authorities chose a Friday night to descend upon a haredi home
to collect an outstanding property tax debt because they knew that the man would
be home at the time.
These secular parliamentarians shouted at the
minister: “Where was the sensitivity of what a Friday night meal means to a
religious family, was there no other way to collect the debt, no matter how
outstanding the debt might have been?”
Here, too, the integrity of politicians
who call themselves civil rights activists to fight for those with whom they
disagreed ideologically was a sight for sore eyes, certainly not what people
seem to expect from the Knesset.
After decades, the cynicism has
certainly set in. Gafni is a fast-talking, slick chairman of the Knesset Finance
He used the comments by Michaeli of the control by the
powerful over the weak to serve his own viewpoint of society against the
He pressed the right buttons, saying that women should get the
same salaries as men for the same jobs. After all, that also helps the haredi
family structure where the woman’s job can help allow the man to
It also followed a Gafni warning, the day before, to the
religious- Zionist members of the Knesset, that when they joined forces with
Yair Lapid’s late father in the days of the Sharon government, at the expense of
the haredim, the ultimate response was the 2005 Gaza disengagement.
understand all of that. I know from where Gafni speaks. His subliminal message
to Michaeli and her Labor colleagues was that Bayit Yehudi’s leader Naftali
Bennett and Yesh Atid counterpart Yair Lapid make an odd couple, and that the
haredi sector can counter them with an alliance with Labor. (Shas leader MK Arye
Deri has also been reported to have held contacts with Labor over whether it
would join the government.) However, what made the Michaeli-Gafni encounter so
special was that it was the firsttime parliamentarian – Michaeli – with very
definitive views and a background that many in Israeli society would consider
controversial up against the old-timer – Gafni – with a lifestyle that large
segments of Israelis consider appalling, and each made the most of the
opportunity from their own perspective to create a defining
Michaeli called herself a feminist; Gafni said that in haredi
society, the woman is seen as greater than the man.
Can they sit down
together and convince each other of their opposing views? I don’t know. I’m not
sure that I care.
That’s not the point.
Call me naïve. Call it
political opportunism. Call me sick and tired of the people who say that there
are two opinions, mine and the wrong opinion. Call me a sucker for speeches,
whatever the motive, that seek the common denominator.
OK, so it was cute
that Interim Knesset Speaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer felt compelled to say “You
can’t kiss,” when Michaeli stood up to greet the haredi Gafni as he came down
from the podium.
Most importantly, the smiles, the sense of humor and the
momentary good feelings have to be translated into talk, even before action. The
old and new of this Knesset have to come together to bring the courage of ideas,
even as the new members of the Knesset remember that they did not invent the
wheel, that they should continue the legacy of those before them who have shown
that there can be political integrity.
David Ze’ev is a political
correspondent at Israel Radio’s English News.