An American in the Knesset

Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman, a newly elected MK, has come far in the eight years since his aliya from Maryland.

Yesh Atid's Dov Lipman 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Yesh Atid's Dov Lipman 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Suddenly everyone is treating Dov Lipman, 17 on the Yesh Atid party’s list, very differently.
With the party polling mostly 10-11 seats leading into the election, Lipman, an American-born haredi activist from Beit Shemesh, was viewed as out of contention for the Knesset until 7 p.m. Tuesday night when unofficial results estimating around 19 seats started to come in.
The rest is history.
In the last 24 hours, he said he had done “19 interviews, including NPR, BBC Iran, the Knesset channel with Nissim Ze’ev and Uri Ariel” and an assortment of other domestic and foreign media.
Lipman said that his success and that of his party have changed the way “everyone acts toward you” and “there is a new air” with those who “viciously attacked before. It empowers me so much more to share our and my message.”
Lipman is not completely new to the spotlight.
In late 2011, he was thrust into the center of a storm, appearing on television around the world, due to his part in the sectarian fights that gripped Beit Shemesh.
The city had become a flashpoint due to physical attacks on local national-religious schoolgirls by ultra-Orthodox religious extremists intent on removing the children from what they considered to be their turf.
The media campaign and a subsequent rally organized by Lipman and the secular movement Israel Hofshit made him a divisive figure in the city. Some saw the haredi rabbi as a savior and champion of the city’s secular community while others branded him a troublemaker out to make a name for himself.
Lipman denies having sought personal gain.
“No one in government was helping us,” he recounted. “We said the only thing we can do is turn to the Israeli press, not the international press. If I could turn the clock back and have this not happen and have the extremists never come and just live peacefully I would have done that.”
One question many people have asked recently is how a haredi relatively new oleh – Lipman immigrated only eight years ago from Maryland – who was teaching in national-religious post-high-school yeshivot for Anglos became connected with Yair Lapid? Lipman said his “first real association had to do with Beit Shemesh and Yair’s staff at Ulpan Shishi” in December 2011.
“I asked them when they did a show about the controversy in Beit Shemesh – don’t speak harshly against haredim in general,” he recalled.
Continuing to tell the story, Lipman said that the “staff person said, ‘You don’t know Yair.’ That has been my mantra for the last few months.”
When Lapid ran the television program, he used the term “the haredi extremists,” distinguishing between radical fringe elements and the community in general.
Next, Lipman’s soon-to-be chief of staff, Alisa Coleman, sent him a video where Lapid told a haredi group, “You won; the secular state now agrees that there is no basis for being here without our history. Now work proactively with everyone to run the country.”
When Lipman went to hear Lapid speak to a secular moshav, he said he was “mesmerized by the tone, the message, the programs he laid out, way back then, the same programs we have been talking about for months – equalizing national service and how to get there.”
Lipman brought Lapid to Beit Shemesh to speak in the summer of 2012. They had their first meeting soon after and Lapid appointed him head of the party’s Beit Shemesh branch.
On October 17, Lapid offered Lipman a spot on the list.
Before Yesh Atid, Lipman headed up Anglo affairs department for Shas renegade Haim Amsalem’s newly established Am Shalem party, which failed the cross the electoral threshold.
Leaving Amsalem and moving to Yesh Atid once again brought charges of opportunism.
Lipman explained his departure from the party, saying that while he greatly respects Amsalem, he “wasn’t the only person who left the party. Other activists left as well and that was when we had a feeling that it really wasn’t a party for the entire nation. It was more of a haredi-Sephardic alternative to Shas.”
Responding to his critics, Lipman said that he did not go straight from Am Shalem to Yesh Atid and that “the spot on the list that I was offered in Am Shalem was more than the non-spot that I was offered in Yesh Atid.” He said nothing was “on the table” when he joined.
The newly elected MK said that the dichotomy of views regarding his local activities – with him being perceived, depending on who you ask, either as a saint or as a sinner – also characterized the local responses to his Knesset campaign.
“There were people who took my campaign saying, ‘Wow, this is fantastic; Yair is a great leader and he can help Beit Shemesh’ but the haredi population in general took it very negatively and at every turn talked about my giving in to the other side, the enemy of the haredi community.”
Among Anglos, the reactions to his candidacy focused more on the divide between how they had previously perceived his views on security and peace process issues and his affiliation with a centrist party.
“People who supported me throughout everything I’ve ever done and who are more solidly extreme on the Right had a difficult time balancing who I was and who they saw me as and how I was with a party that was not firmly entrenched in the Right,” he said.
Giving up his American citizenship is one of the hardest things he has ever done, Lipman said, adding that just as the issue of helping small towns is important to him, so is being a voice for the Anglo community.
His main expected role in the party is to be a liaison to the haredi community in negotiations over serving in the IDF and national service.
Summarizing Yesh Atid’s approach to the issue, Lipman said that essentially everyone will need to be in the IDF or national service and that the “legislation [will] take hold immediately,” but that “it will be five years before everyone is serving, giving time to army leaders to build programs.”
He said he understood that allies on the issue were “very upset at our plan,” but that Yesh Atid has emphasized dealing with “what is possible,” adding that both the Left and the Right perpetuated the current situation and that his party could not “make everyone start serving tomorrow.”
Instead, he justified a gradual process, saying that if 40 percent of haredim were to start working tomorrow, it would have a “moderating effect” on their opposition to serving. On the peace process, Lipman said, “If I do have someone on the other side willing to make an agreement, and there was a need to give up parts of Israel, which I love and cherish as much as anyone else, I would do it.”
In a serious tone, he continued by stating that while he was not speaking for the party, he did have a “personal red line,” and that he would not remain in any party that gave up the Temple Mount.
Lipman declined to offer the specifics of his position, but noted that “Yair has said we will maintain control of Jerusalem.” However, he did not put forth withdrawing from settlements and large portions of the West Bank as a “personal red-line.”
Asked if Lipman would shake the hand of Mahmoud Abbas, he said, “If I felt it necessary in order to reach an international agreement with the support of the US and important nations to have a peace deal, I would.”
Switching gear, Lipman espoused a lenient approach to conversion, stating that there has been a “rabbinic failure” on the issue.
“How can people go to school with our children, speak Hebrew, do the army” and be ignored by the rabbinate? he asked.
It is “intolerable that people were persecuted in Russia for being viewed as Jews and now they are persecuted here” for not being Jewish enough, Lipman continued.
He also advocated a “broader conversion policy with other streams of Judaism included.”
On civil marriage, Lipman declared that “it is wrong for us to legislate anyone having to get married according to Halacha. The rabbinate needs to be far more embracing.”
Although physical contact between men and women is taboo in Lipman’s community, he declared, “If a woman sticks out her hand, I’ll shake her hand. To create a situation of embarrassment, I would never do that. Her feelings far outweigh” the societal stigma.
Among women who know him – such as Yael German, No. 3 on Yesh Atid’s list – he said they know “where he is coming from.” After the election results were announced, Lipman said that she looked at him and locked her own hands together, shaking them back and forth to signal their common joy, instead of hugging him.
With all of his liberal views, including sending his children to a national-religious school, Lipman’s haredi credentials have come into doubt to some degree.
“If there was a Ner Yisrael in Israel, that’s where my son would go to high school,” said Lipman in explaining his stance on the issue of religious education for his children.
Ner Israel, located in Baltimore, is one of the major right-wing Modern Orthodox/haredi yeshivot in the United States, significantly to the right of Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University.
Lipman, himself, attended Ner Israel as a student.
Asked how his new-found fame had impacted his family, Lipman’s wife Dena said, “Our entire lives, we were always involved in the community to do the best we can, to make God’s name holy... now it carries on to Yesh Atid, with the hope it will bring unity for Am Yisrael [the People of Israel].”