Time for (political) renewal

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.

January 24, 2013 22:10
3 minute read.
Israel Border Police soldiers plant trees for Tu Bishvat, January 24, 2013.

Tu Bishvat with Magav 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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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 tithes.

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 annually.

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 Hotel.

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 Israelis.

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 them.

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 exemptions.

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.

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