Taming the unruly MK in its natural habitat

The Knesset spokesman asked me to moderate a debate between MKs Gafni and Hotovely. I agreed instantly.

Lahav Harkov (center) moderating between MKs 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lahav Harkov (center) moderating between MKs 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
“MK Rabbi Gafni, your time is up,” I announced, attempting to sound authoritative, but MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) continued explaining why haredim (ultra- Orthodox) don’t serve in the IDF.
“MK Gafni, unfortunately, there is no more time,” I tried again.
“But this is interesting!” he insisted.
As a reporter in the Knesset, I watch MKs argue almost every day. Suddenly, on Wednesday, I found myself in the eye of the storm.
How did I get here?
About two weeks ago, Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir asked me if I would be willing to lend a hand during the Knesset Open House in honor of its 63rd birthday, and moderate a debate between Gafni and MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) on discrimination against women in the IDF.
I agreed almost instantly.
As one of four females out of dozens of parliamentary reporters, I was honored to represent my gender in the debates. Hotovely is very passionate about women’s rights and Gafni is known for his quick wit, so I knew I wouldn’t be bored. I’ve spoken to both MKs plenty of times, and I did not feel uncomfortable with them.
Yet, I did not realize that being in the middle of their crossfire would be much more nerve-wracking than listening in on committee meetings or stopping MKs in the hallway to answer questions, like I do on most days.
For one, no one really wanted to hear my questions – Gafni and Hotovely each had their own agenda, debating decorum be damned.
The debate was scheduled for 11:30, but both MKs arrived fashionably late. I introduced myself and them, and talked for a minute about the topic at hand. The status of women in the IDF recently became a hot topic after three religious IDF soldiers left a ceremony in which a female soldier sang, I explained. Then, I gave each MK six minutes to speak.
Hotovely began, because Gafni said “ladies first,” and almost immediately changed the topic to something only somewhat related: Why most haredim do not serve in the IDF, and why are there no female haredi MKs.
She spoke for two minutes, and demanded an answer from Gafni, who insisted that he deserves Hotovely’s remaining four minutes, and spoke for 10, despite my protestations. Then, Hotovely asked for her four minutes back.
Gafni said the reason the Jewish people survived 2,000 years in the Diaspora is because of those who studied Torah, and quoted Biblical passages that said half of the nation should study while the other half goes to war.
Hotovely, however, said that in the case of a war to defend Israel, Halacha dictates that everyone, even a groom on the day of his wedding, should enlist, and this applies to the current situation, because Israel’s existence is threatened every day.
As for why there are no women in haredi parties, Gafni said in his community there are roles for men and roles for women, and no haredi-raised woman would even want to be an MK.
Hotovely bet him she could find plenty of haredi women who would disagree, and said that, as a Zionist, it is an honor and an imperative for her to serve her country in the Knesset.
“Tell me, now many Likud MKs are women? How many female ministers are there?” Gafni retorted. (The answer: five and three.)
The conversation seems organized and civil in writing, but don’t forget – this is the Knesset. There was a little bit of shouting, a lot of interrupting, no shortage of sarcastic comments and no respect for time limits – all of the things that make the legislature both fascinating and infuriating.
At first, I was nervous. Yakir had said to me to make sure the MKs stick to the schedule, or else there would be chaos, and clearly I was unable to keep things in order.
Then, as Gafni continued to crack wise and Hotovely acted appalled, I realized that this is all part of the game I see them and 118 other MKs play every day, only I can’t kick them out of the room for interrupting three times.
Plus, the groups of soldiers and cadets in the Israel Police officers’ course gathered in the conference room seemed to be having a good time.
After 40 minutes, I was finally able to convince the MKs to stop arguing, and make room for the next debate, between MKs Alex Miller (Israel Beiteinu) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al), which I was not hosting.
Gafni turned to me and Hotovely and said: “That went very well! Tzipi, you know your stuff.”
Hotovely told me I’m a great moderator, and we should do this again next year.
Go figure. If chaos is the norm, I must have done a relatively good job.