In Plain Language: The empty Knesset seat

The writer argues that focus should not be on internal politics of the new government, but the people they are meant to serve.

March 19, 2015 18:19

A homeless man lies on the street.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

As I write this, the day before the elections, there is a last-minute frenzy among the various parties to acquire as many seats as possible. The Israeli electoral system has its faults, to be sure – individual MKs are not answerable to a specific constituency, party platforms take a back seat to personality cults, governments are perpetually in danger of folding, etc. – but no one can deny the vibrancy of our democratic process.

As you read this article, the voting has ended, the results are in, and Phase II – the all-important attempt to carve out a viable ruling coalition – is well under way. Whereas the casting of votes was done by the public, in open view, the horse-trading that characterizes this stage is done largely in secret, with the “fine print” of coalition deals largely kept out of the public record. There will be more bed-hopping than in Hollywood before the final union takes place. We, the electorate, will be no more than guests at the wedding ceremony.

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But I am thinking about something else right now. It is the yahrzeit of my beloved mother, and the onset of the month of Nisan, which begins tonight and focuses our spiritual attention on the impending holiday of Passover.

My mother passed away 34 years ago, during the week before Passover. I got up from the shiva mourning period two days before the holiday and rushed to celebrate the Seder with my family. It was a bittersweet celebration, to say the least. My most vivid memory of that Seder was staring at the empty seat at the table, the seat reserved for Elijah the Prophet.

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As you may know, there is a custom in many homes to leave one chair empty, in anticipation of the coming of Elijah, who, by tradition, will announce the Final Redemption of the Jewish People in Nisan, the month when our first redemption, the Exodus from Egypt, took place.

But for me – with all due respect to the venerable prophet – I was fixated on the absence of our family’s matriarch, and all the Seders past when she directed the cleaning, cooking and conduct of all the Passover festivities. Her chair, I lamented, would never be filled.

Still, the idea of an empty chair at Seder-time became a popular – perhaps even a pop – theme. There were times when we would dedicate the empty chair to the Jews of Russia, trapped behind the Iron Curtain and unable even to obtain a square of matza for Passover.

There were years when the chair was invisibly occupied by Ethiopian Jewry, an entire distant community desperate to finally, after 2,000 years, emigrate to Israel. And at some Seder tables, the chair was reserved for the “Fifth Child,” the child who was so distant, so cut off from his collective family and Jewish tradition that – unlike the Rebellious Child – he was not even present at the Seder.

Today, thank God, the Jews of the former Soviet Union have won their struggle, and happily, many are part of the fabric of Israel (which is why, as the quip goes, the second-most popular language in Israel is... Hebrew). The Jews of Ethiopia have also been liberated and joined our nation; we have the first president George Bush to thank for that, as he personally interceded to secure their release and transport them here – though their valiant struggle to integrate fully into Israeli society has yet to be fully accomplished. As for the fifth, alienated child, that battle is still being waged, as assimilation – particularly in Europe and, as 2013’s Pew Research Center report so tragically indicated, in America – has become a runaway train.

But I suggest that there is, unfortunately, no lack of other candidates to take up residence in Elijah’s chair.

There are the agunot, the “chained women,” who wait – sometimes for decades – to secure their marital freedom from recalcitrant husbands. While this problem is almost insoluble in the Diaspora, where church and state are strictly divided, it is inconceivable that here in Israel we cannot come up with ways to redeem these suffering women. Stripping the men who hold their (ex)-wives hostage of all forms of social privileges, from driver’s licenses to passports to National Insurance Institute benefits – and doing this while those wives are still of marriageable age – would be a good start. This should be a non-negotiable condition for allowing the religious parties into any coalition.

And then, of course, there are the poor. While Israel is ranked as having the 47th-highest standard of living in the world (out of 194 nations, according to the International Living magazine), we also have more than 20 percent of our population living below the poverty line. In response to the famous question, “Is Israel a rich country with poor people, or a poor country with rich people?” the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Many, many people are dependent on charitable organizations, such as food kitchens and local g’mahim (free-lending societies) in order to get through the week.

While there has been some progress of late on this front – including pressure on the haredi community to get vocational training, and the expansion of the transportation system so more people from the periphery can find work in the Gedera-Hadera corridor – much more is needed. In particular, pressure must come from below, from the general public, by boycotting overly expensive products and protesting the outrageous salaries and charges of our banks.

“All who are hungry, let them come and eat” – the Haggada’s opening statement – should be a national directive.

I would also leave room in the chair for singles. There is an inordinate number of young people today who either cannot find a mate, or refuse to tie the knot. The age of marriage has climbed steadily higher, the level of loneliness rising along with it. The talmudic dictum of going to the huppa at 18 is virtually unknown outside haredi circles, with many not even considering matrimony until their mid-30s or even 40s.

In large measure, a country – especially our country, Israel – is stabilized by the success of its family structure. At the very least, we, each family in every community, should find a place at our own tables for singles – preferably a male and a female.

And so I humbly suggest that we add one more seat to the Knesset, a 121st seat, and leave it empty. And then we do our utmost to fill it with all those still searching for their place in our society.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.

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