Not his father’s keeper

Yair Lapid wants to follow his father Tommy into the Knesset, but without his anti-religious agenda.

Yair and Tommy Lapid 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Yesh Atid)
Yair and Tommy Lapid 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Yesh Atid)
The first sign that Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid was different from his father, the late secularist justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, came when he offered kosher cake at his home in Tel Aviv’s elitist Ramat Aviv Gimmel neighborhood.
Lapid did not build a succa for the holiday, but he has built a friendship with modern Orthodox rabbis like Shai Piron of Oranit, Benny Lau of Jerusalem, and Dov Lipman of Beit Shemesh. He also lacks his father’s in-your-face style.
Pointing to a picture on his wall of the Shinui leader with US President Barack Obama, taken during a January 2006 visit to Israel by the then-senator, Lapid said his father called him and told him: “I just met a guy who could be president of the United States – if he wasn’t black.”
Lapid’s biography of his father was recently published in English under the title Memories After My Death: The Story of Joseph ‘Tommy’ Lapid. The English version of the book was published in London, where the elder Lapid was sent as a correspondent for Ma’ariv when his son was a baby.
Those who are unaware that he spent his first years in England are surprised by his British-accented English and his fluency. He conducted the entire interview with The Jerusalem Post in English without a problem, and while he is known as the quintessential Israeli, he showed a deep understanding of American politics and culture and used baseball metaphors.
Before entering politics, Lapid held two of the best jobs in Israeli journalism: Hosting Channel 2’s Friday night news magazine Ulpan Shishi and writing the lead column in Yediot Aharonot’s weekly magazine. He also wrote 10 best-selling books, a drama series and a play, he lectured, and he lived a relatively trouble-free life.
Lapid knows that now that he is a politician, nothing will be easy anymore. But he is also a former boxer with pictures of Rocky on the wall of his office, and when it comes to politics, he is ready to fight – in his unique way.
In his first interview to the English media since he entered politics in January, Lapid talks about his views on key issues, his image, his father and his faith.
It is now Succot. If you could invite anyone – alive or dead – to your succa, who would it be and why?
My father would answer Winston Churchill, because he felt he saved his life. I would pick Moses, John F. Kennedy and Bruce Springsteen. I wrote about Moses in a book about my heroes. I would tell him that the punishment God gave him of seeing the Land of Israel and not coming in might have felt exaggerated, but I felt God used a minor sin to prevent his favorite son from coming to the Land of milk and honey, because we know he would find a troubled place with enemies and giants and ongoing conflict. God gave him a Disney-like happy ending instead of forcing him to lead the Israelites into inevitable disappointment. I wanted to tell him that he should not have been disappointed and that God was actually being nice to him. I would pick JFK, because he had the ability to tell a story in which people improve themselves and then convince them to live up to the story with efforts for civil rights and the moon project. That’s what this country needs now, so I would want to seek his advice. I would tell Springsteen to come and bring his guitar. It might not be an Orthodox succa, but it would be a very interesting one.
Does your father’s legacy hinder you, as a politician who intends to be less polarizing?
Somebody once asked him ‘why are you so blunt and your son such a nice guy?’ He replied that the answer was that he had me and I didn’t have him. The Nazis took his father away when he was 13. I was raised by a bigger-than-life father who was protective and authoritative. I avoided his struggles thanks in part to him. I am more easy-going. But I agree with him that religion should not be involved in Israeli politics, that it is bad for religion and for politics. Yesh Atid is not an anti-religious party. Being anti-religious is not our banner. When it comes to matters of religion and state, my first choice would always be dialogue.
But Israel is no longer capable of acting like a sovereign country if it sends women to the back of the bus like they were Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, and does not object. The country must say: ‘This is not going to happen. Israel has values and we won’t stand for this. Change this, or there will be no bus.’ On that I am like my father. He believed in the country’s duty to democracy, women’s rights, minority rights, etc. I truly believe there is a generation of young Orthodox Jews who have had enough of the tyranny of extremist rabbis and political figures who don’t let them go to work, support their families, rescue themselves from poverty. I tell hitech CEOs: We have an obligation as well. We have to give them work.
Your plan for equalizing the burden of IDF service has been misunderstood, in part because it’s complicated. Can you explain it in a tweet?
Plans that can be explained in a tweet aren’t worth explaining. I can’t explain it in a tweet, but the plan says: (1) Everyone has to serve, (2) Not every haredi youngster will be a paratrooper so there has to be civil service frameworks for them, (3) In a five-year period in which we will change the draft, we have to let them out of the yeshivas, set them free and let them go to work. After that, every 18- year-old will go to the army or civil service. They will have no other choice. It is a duty for Israeli citizens. I don’t want to go with tanks into Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim, I don’t want a civil war, but you don’t ask them whether they want to fulfill their civic duties. They have to. 2012 will be the first year a majority of first graders are Arab or haredi. That means that in 12 years, 50 percent of 18-yearolds won’t serve or work. I don’t want to ignore the problem. I want to solve it. There is a symbolic problem in releasing people from their duties as citizens.
Haredim would be offended by you grouping them together with Arabs. They would call that anti-haredi.
Explaining why you are not something is philosophically impossible, but I am not willing to be called anti-haredi. I am a concerned citizen who sees his leadership not taking the situation serious enough. The country cannot survive if 50% of the populace are not part of the game. How can I tell my grandson to go to the army even though the country officially lets more than half the people his age not go? The problem is also moral. The conscientious objectors in my neighborhood are immoral, horrible and a disgrace, but one of the reasons they feel they cannot join the IDF is that they feel they have less of a moral obligation because the government releases people. I think the country should stand on its rights and tell the young haredim they have to serve. When the country stands its ground, it usually succeeds.
You were the keynote speaker at the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Atlanta. Explain your views on religious pluralism.
Other politicians might have an opinion on [MK David] Rotem’s conversion bill, women praying at the [Western] Wall and civil marriage, but they are always constructing a future coalition in their heads so they don’t speak their minds. One day they might need Shas. I’m not willing to play this game. Israel cannot be the only country without freedom of religion for Jews. All streams must be equal. The monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on marriage should end. I want Israel to remain a Jewish state, but I want separation of religion and politics. Laws like the anti-hametz law and the pig law are insulting for the country. There is no law in Israel against driving on Yom Kippur, but no one would dare move their car. When it’s not forced by a law, 99% of Israelis would say they are proud Jews and Israelis and act appropriately. I think people should be able to get married in a civil marriage at City Hall like they do in Chicago. To tell people that they cannot get married by a Reform rabbi is a disgrace. People are lying, and going to Cyprus. This is shameful. There were always different streams and waves within Judaism, and there always will be. That is something attractive about Judaism. When [United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael] Eichler says in the Knesset that Reform Jews are anti-Semites, someone should not only say that it is insulting, they should kick him out of the coalition. I would kick out anyone who incited by saying racist things against Jews or Arabs.
What would you say to appeal to voters from English-speaking countries?
I think I speak my mind regardless of what audience I am addressing. I say the same thing to journalists from very different publications. If you vote for me, you get a clear voice for everyone’s right to practice their Judaism as they see fit. [Haredi Beit Shemesh community activist] Rabbi Dov Lipman is a devoted member of Yesh Atid and a fantastic guy. I like him a lot. He understands the same way as me how we can all live together. I won’t say who’ll be on the party’s list. If I am able to convince [national religious rabbi and activist] Shai Piron, he’ll be on the list. But I haven’t been able to convince him yet.
What will you be looking for when you put together your Knesset list? Will you want a balance of women, someone religious, someone Anglo like Lipman, etc.?
The media feels it has to have names and faces, but the public is not interested. We are looking for great people who can serve in the government or a Knesset committee who know what to do because they headed all kinds of organizations. We will publish the list three months before election time like all other parties.
How will you deal with [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu timing the election to his advantage on Iran – an issue that is not seen as your strong suit?
I never suspected Netanyahu would help me in how he timed the election. If you don’t have adversaries and people who tell you that what you are doing is chutzpah, you shouldn’t go into politics. The theory that says that if the issues on the table are serious no one can come into the political arena, would leave us stuck with the same people. If you fail time and time again, that doesn’t make you experienced in my book. The country is not doing well, and it insults my intelligence if you tell me that the people who are making the country not do well have to stay in power because the country is not doing well.
How would you handle Iran differently from Netanyahu?
Netanyahu made two big mistakes on the Iranian issue. The first was instigating a conflict with the US administration, betting on the wrong pony and thinking [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney would win the election. We have an Israeli prime minister who shares the biggest sponsor as the Republican candidate in Sheldon Adelson and says things that hurt the president in an election year. It has created a situation in which it became an Israel-Iran problem and not a world-Iran problem. Netanyahu made it into a local conflict between Israelis and Iranians, and this is wrong. There is only one way to end the Iranian nuclear threat: the fall of the ayatollahs. An Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem. It would enable the Iranians to say we have been attacked by a nuclear country and now we have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to strengthen the sanctions. Average Iranian citizens don’t understand why they have 60% inflation, why they can’t get chicken and they can’t get gas in one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers. If this continues, the Iranian people won’t stand for it. If you listen to Netanyahu, he is more interested in giving ultimatums to the US. It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US. People tend to forget that the plane Netanyahu is sending to bomb Iran is an American plane. He thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary. Like Netanyahu, I think that if we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still a lot left to do to avoid that. I had problems with Netanyahu’s UN speech. Who gives a date on war in advance? You only go to war when you have no choice. My red line is the same as that of the professional security men I talk with.
How would you serve as a minister under Netanyahu when you are so critical of him?
I think he’s wrong on a very crucial subject. What kind of politician would I be if I am silent when I see things that matter that bother me? On the Iranian issue, he did a great job by putting it on the world’s table, but then he took it off the world’s table and made it an Israeli issue. It’s the same with economy: He got it on track, then made mistakes.
Who do you blame for the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians?
We as a country decided to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am not a leftist. I think the Palestinians should blame mostly themselves. After the disengagement, instead of building hospitals and schools, they fired rockets. But if an Israeli prime minister would be really determined to have negotiations, there would be negotiations. I think Netanyahu is too scared of [activist Moshe] Feiglin and [coalition chairman Ze’ev] Elkin and other extremists in his party, so he took the most dangerous conflict, delayed dealing with it, and made our children have to deal with double the number of Palestinians just so he will have an easier time passing the next Likud convention in peace.
How do you think the US-Israel relationship will be affected by four more years of Obama and Netanyahu in power?
There is still hope [Netanyahu will be defeated]. They will find a way to work together. The relationship between the US and Israel is stronger than the people in the relationship. It would help if we had a different government and if we had a different prime minister.
Why did you call Habayit Hayehudi leadership candidate Naftali Bennett’s plan to annex Area C in the West Bank anti-Zionist?
He offered to give 50,000 Palestinians Israeli citizenship, and that was just the first stage. That would cancel the Jewish right of return and allow a right of return to [Palestinians] in a way. It opens a floodgate we cannot close in terms of human rights, so I see it as an anti-Zionist plan. Any plan that puts the land of Israel over the people of Israel is anti-Zionist. Our goal should be a Jewish majority in Israel, so we will have to withdraw from territories minus the blocs. [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman’s plan [of giving the Palestinians land in pre-1967 Israel that is populated by Arabs and keeping more of the West Bank] is unconstitutional. Removing citizenship from Arabs is an undemocratic concept. Like most of the things Liberman says, it sounds fantastic and has no practical value.
Should the public lose faith in journalists when an anchorman who is supposed to be objective jumps into politics?
This is a cultural gap you will have to cross. In Israel, anchormen have opinions. I am a columnist, and I have been a talk-show host. It will take time for people to adjust and I understand that. Would you rather have your leaders be professional politicians who go from one bar mitzva to another kissing children they never met or people who live in the real world? I was an anchorman for four years, I was a journalist for 31 years. Israelis expect their leaders to be boring, and I understand that I do not qualify, but they will get over it.
How can you keep writing your column if you are a politician now?
The national press council has ruled that there is nothing wrong with it. I wish more Israeli politicians would write columns and be part of the marketplace of ideas. I would like to know what they think about their family and how their children are dealing with buying an apartment or their kids being out of school for so long. I wish I could continue writing my column when I am in the government. I think I will stop when the election is called, but it’s Yediot’s decision.
If you say in your speeches that there are too many parties, why did you form another instead of joining one that already exists?
I accept the fact that there is something problematic with saying there should be less parties and therefore I am creating a new one. The current parties are not going to solve the country’s problems, because they had a chance and they didn’t. For instance, they are not going to fix the election system. The only way to fix it is to get a party into the Knesset and say ‘this is my business, this is my red line, if you want my seats, this is the price I have to pay.’ Either I will disappear because of my success or I will become a larger party. I won’t say I would enter any coalition at any cost, but any party would want to have influence.
How would you change the election system?
The current system creates a culture of corruption. If your government is not obliged to honesty and saving money for the people and all those cliches, who are we to tell people that they need to be honest in paying taxes that they could easily avoid? My plan says only the head of the biggest party would construct the government, raise the electoral threshold to 6%, and you cannot topple the government unless you have 70 votes. There would be a limit of 18 ministries and no minister-without-portfolio. I will take no minister-without- portfolio for my party. Anyone who doesn’t want to change the system should support the regional elections, because that would result in years of fighting over how to divide the regions. I would be open to that element only as part of Phase 2 of electoral reforms.
How can someone with a reputation for hanging out with the wealthiest people in the country and who has written about his love of expensive cigars and alcohol claim to represent or even understand the socioeconomic problems of the middle class?
I quit smoking two and a half years ago. I grew up in a typical middle-class family in south Tel Aviv and then I made the error of doing well. I refuse to apologize for doing well in my life. It is ridiculous to tell someone who has been a journalist for 31 years, and volunteered for non-profit organizations that support the poor, that they can’t understand. I live here. I won’t indulge the people who think they know me because they read gossip columns. It’s too ridiculous.
What is your opinion on Jonathan Pollard?
I think he should be released. It’s about time. The US is being unnecessarily harsh on someone sick and getting old. All the spies from the Cold War were released years ago even though they spied for an enemy. It’s time to release someone who spied for a friend.
How can your party handle another year with no election if Netanyahu decides to pass the budget and hold the election on time in October?
We were supposed to be a month after the election now had Netanyahu moved it up to September 4. I cherish all the time Netanyahu gave me. We have 13,000 volunteers now in 80 local headquarters under eight campaigns. Our organization is the cheapest but we are very well organized. I have a background in production. I know how to organize stuff. We felt the right way was to build the party from the grass roots. If you ask me, I am ready tomorrow. But every month I am given helps.
How do you explain that in spite of all the problems you point out with the country, the Israel Democracy Index found that 76% of Israelis are optimistic?
When Israelis are asked if they are happy, they see it as a poll about their patriotism, and Israelis are patriotic. If the question was not whether they are happy but if they are happy about the way things are going, the answers would be different because the country is going in the wrong direction. We are increasingly dividing into groups and we are losing the world’s sympathy. The global economic market is gloomy and that impacts our economy. Our government does not function, so we have to do something about it. Israelis are not happy about the way things are. They are only happy because this is the place they have chosen. I believe that things can be handled better, and that’s why I left my job to run. We have real solutions to real problems and we can do a better job than the politicians. We can bring a new kind of politics. Whether I am the answer is for the voter to decide.