Meet the MK: Shimon Ohayon

Second in a series on the 48 new members of the 19th Knesset: Likud Beytenu’s Shimon Ohayon.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Shimon Ohayon 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Yisrael Beytenu)
Yisrael Beytenu MK Shimon Ohayon 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Yisrael Beytenu)
Speaking from his office at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education, surrounded by walls lined with books about Jewish communities from around the world and awards for his work on enhancing Jewish identity, Shimon Ohayon discussed his hopes to help a wider public as a Likud Beytenu MK in the incoming Knesset.
Name: Shimon Ohayon Party: Yisrael Beytenu, 31st on the combined Likud Beytenu list Age: 67 Hometown: Rishon Lezion Family status: Married, three children Birthplace: Morocco, made aliya in 1956 Profession before becoming an MK: Deputy director, School of Education, Bar-Ilan University and chairman of Moroccan Immigrants’ Organization.
Why did you decide to enter politics?
People turned to me [to ask me to apply to be a Yisrael Beytenu MK] because of my activism and educational experience. I didn’t expect it, and was surprised by the request to submit candidacy to the selection committee. After I checked some things and saw Yisrael Beytenu fit my views, so there weren’t major contradictions, especially on religious and state issues, I agreed. I have an educational mission and want to contribute.
I have always been socially involved and enjoy it. The things I did in a more local framework, I can now do for the country and have an influence through legislation.
What are the first three bills you plan to propose? I would want to propose things that would improve the status of teachers in Israel, especially their salary. Today, those who become teachers aren’t the best students in the academic market.
We want to attract the best people, so we have high level teachers with masters’ degrees, who lead and set an example. I hope to pass laws so that teachers are paid a worthy salary, and this way we won’t have to spend as much on youth in danger.
Another issue is poverty among Arabs and haredim. We can complain all day about them not studying the core curriculum, but the best thing to do is bring them closer to us and give them professional training and academic studies. I worked with three haredi schools for 12 years. I didn’t tell them that they’re not okay; I helped them so they can get jobs, make money and serve their community. This way, they become fair partners in society. We need to promote this activity.
Finally, we need to strengthen Jewish identity within groups, and not just have a melting pot. I run the Dahan Center at Bar-Ilan University, where we research and encourage Jewish communities in Israel. I hope that in two to three years the center will publish 20 books about communities in Israel – Tunisia, Caucasus, France and more. It’s important for every community to feel they have a place and belong [in Israel]. We need to reveal the communities’ activity, Zionism and religious customs, and put it on the table so everyone knows and feels they belong. I’ve seen what this does for youth from Ethiopia, Caucasus and other places. It helps their connection to Israeli society, and they feel like they belong.
What was the most interesting experience on the campaign trail? Parlor meetings. People often asked me what I have to do with Russians [in Yisrael Beytenu], and I said that’s just a stereotype. The party and its leadership is in a different place. Yisrael Beytenu has immigrants from the former Soviet Union, native Israelis, religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Druse. People are surprised, and think its fascinating.
They thought Yisrael Beytenu was all about Russians, but I say it’s a fascinating meeting between people. That’s what is beautiful about the party.
This Knesset has a record high number of women and religious people. How do you think this will affect the way it functions and the kinds of changes it brings? The increase in female MKs is great. They will have a positive influence and bring their unique point of view and social sensitivity. From my perspective as a religious person, I’m glad that religious people are not a sector. They’re part of the general public, which brings two things. First, people will see that religious people are normal and contribute to society, and second, religious people will see that life is complicated and they’re not in a closed community. They need to deal [with the outside world] and be productive. Separation only increases gaps. Meeting people decreases opposition.
Do you think haredim and Arabs should do military or national service, and if so, how should the State enforce it? Definitely. I think haredim and Arabs must, as citizens of the state, do their part and serve in the IDF or national service. Everything must be done with intelligence and negotiations and have the right timing so these things will happen.
There must be new frameworks that didn’t exist before. You can’t just say “there’s a law, do it now,” because that will only bring conflict. There needs to be discussion, not force. Give [haredim and Arabs] time, but also emphasize that the law is the law and we need to reach that point where there is equality in the burden.
We also need clear incentives and benefits for those who serve in the IDF, as opposed to those who don’t. Those changes don’t need to wait for equality in the burden. Society cannot tolerate the current situation anymore, so at least the benefits need to be dealt with immediately.
Do you support a religious-Zionist chief candidate, such as Rabbi David Stav, for the Chief Rabbinate? Certainly, because I think the Chief Rabbinate needs to be nationalist and the chief rabbi must be a character that can serve the entire public and not deal with one camp. The haredi camp cannot give us rabbis for all of Israel. I don’t agree with this. Someone with religious- Zionist views should be chief rabbi, but I don’t want to deal with a specific candidate.
What can be done to lower the cost of housing in Israel? The government needs to be involved by giving cheaper land to contractors and regulating construction, so there are good prices. The state must supervise.
The construction itself will cost the same, but the land prices and amount of bureaucracy can be lower. My party wants [to control] the Housing Ministry and the Israel Land Authority in order to cut out bureaucracy. When these issues are removed, there will be land for less money to offer to contractors who will build for young couples, according to conditions set by the government.
What do you think can be cut in the budget, which must be passed within 45 days of the government’s swearing in? I’m sure that this is an issue that the government will deal with. Many ideas are certainly being discussed. Maybe there is fat in the Defense Ministry that can be cut, and I’m sure that other ideas will come up from people who know the topic better. I’m still new, and can’t say I’m fluent in the state budget.
What is your position on talks with the Palestinian Authority and a possible Palestinian state? We know that [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu, here in Bar-Ilan, offered a Palestinian state. So far, we see there’s no partner. The basic thing that the Palestinians need to do is recognize Israel as a Jewish State. This is the only Jewish State, so this condition is above and beyond all others. There is no problem for a Palestinian nation to find self-expression in other places. Most Arab states have the same language, history and roots, more or less. We have one state for our nation and they need to recognize that. As long as they don’t recognize that it is a problem, and we have no partner.
Do you support the adoption of the Edmond Levy Report, which recommends the state approve unauthorized Jewish settlements in the West Bank? From what I know, I think I support it. I don’t know the details, only what I read in the press. Unfortunately, there is a lot of politics involved in what is declared legal and what isn’t. I was an emissary that brought new immigrants from US to live in Gush Katif [Jewish settlements in Gaza] and build a moshav.
We said it was government policy for Jewish people to live there. The government sent them there, and then we call them “settlers” with a negative connotation as if they snuck in. They were delegitimized, even though we sent them there. No one apologized for uprooting them from their homes. Therefore, the report, which looked into these issues and says there’s a reason to recognize them, is something I support.