Moshe Arbel: The Shas MK who fights for an equal society

Arbel has emphasized his overriding concern to redress the socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society, but also a desire to change the caustic political culture that has taken root in the country.

SHAS MK Moshe Arbel: We don’t need to agree to everything, but we should disagree without hatred. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
SHAS MK Moshe Arbel: We don’t need to agree to everything, but we should disagree without hatred.
Cooperation across the political divide today in Israel is without doubt a rare and precious commodity, as is the ability of those on one side of the partisan line to level criticism at their own camp.
But in months, Shas MK Moshe Arbel has demonstrated the capacity to engage in such endeavors, and has promoted the cause of mutual respect within the political realm, criticized the prime minister despite his party’s close ties to the premier, and demanded that the police enforce COVID-19 regulations more tightly.
Arbel, aged 37, has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Shas Party, starting out as a legislative assistant for Shas’s Yoav Ben-Tzur in 2014, then becoming chief of staff to party leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri just two years later, and then three years after that was elected to the Knesset for Shas in the March 2019 elections.
From the outset, Arbel has emphasized his overriding concern to redress the socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society, but also a desire to change the caustic political culture that has taken root in the country.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post this week, Arbel expanded on why he believes addressing inequality in the Jewish state is critical to its success, and why a more moderate political atmosphere is of critical importance.
But the ultra-Orthodox MK also insisted that although mutual respect is crucial, he and his party could not agree to demands for greater religious pluralism in Israel, insisting that a “truly liberal” position rules this out.
Arbel says that he never had aspirations to go into politics, and that he stumbled into this line of work after being introduced to Ben-Tzur six years ago.
The Shas MK spent seven years studying in yeshiva, passed Chief Rabbinate exams to serve as a rabbi, served in the IDF Home Front Command, and subsequently obtained a BA and master’s degree in law from the Kiryat Ono College on its ultra-Orthodox campus.
After completing a trainee period working at the Ramle Magistrate’s Court, he was introduced to Ben-Tzur, who quickly took Arbel on as his legislative assistant.
And, he says, he quickly turned his attention to the Alalouf report on poverty, which made a series of recommendations that Ben-Tzur, with the help of Arbel, turned into legislation, including the provision of assistance to children in the state education system from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Indeed, in discussing his parliamentary achievements thus far, Arbel focuses specifically on his efforts to redress economic deprivation that is still prevalent in society and is likely to have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
In particular, Arbel cites with pride legislation he and Deri advanced to redistribute municipal business taxes paid by businesses at Ben-Gurion Airport to poor municipalities in the areas around the airport.
In a similar step, Arbel was instrumental in related legislation that redistributes municipal business taxes from industrial zones based on kibbutzim in wealthy regional councils to nearby development towns whose socioeconomic status is far below that of their affluent neighbors.
The MK explains that, historically, businesses and factories were established in industrial zones of kibbutzim around the country, and the municipal business taxes, which make up the overwhelming majority of a municipal or regional council’s income, were paid toward the regional councils in which these zones were located.
But the workers in these factories – mostly Sephardi immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East – came, in the most part, from nearby development towns which were starved of this municipal income, leading to the ingrained poverty in places such as Kiryat Shmona in the North, Yeroham and Dimona in the South, and far beyond.
“We must invest in giving equal opportunities to everyone, and to give local authorities the tools to give children a good education, good health services and good welfare services,” says Arbel.
“Reducing societal socioeconomic division is a long-term change which will create a much more unified society, with equal opportunities whether for a haredi child from Betar Illit, or a Beduin child from Hura in the Negev, a Druze child from the North, and indeed a child from Herzliya Pituah.
“If we give them the same opportunities to dream, and the ability to realize their dreams, we will create prosperity on a national level and create a better society.”
But Arbel declines to emphasize what are often described as the historic injustices done to North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Shas’s voter base, both ultra-Orthodox and traditional.
The MK says that focusing on grievance is unhelpful and only dredges up historic arguments in which both sides can make claims about the rightness of their position.
“The bottom line is that this struggle [for socioeconomic equality] is critical because it will make a more just society, and we must not get stuck in the difficulties of history,” he says.
But poverty and economic difficulties are not the only thing plaguing the Jewish state today. Along with an actual plague has also come a plague of bitter and rancorous political division.
Part of that clearly emanates from the political elite to which Arbel belongs, with politicians on both sides of the aisle whipping up political and societal grievances with ferocious and divisive language.
In an attempt to redress this, Arbel, together with Blue and White minister Michael Biton, recently initiated a “Covenant of Mutual Respect” for members of the Knesset whereby they pledged to act with greater respect and tolerance toward one another when debating the issues of the day and carrying out parliamentary work.
“We have had three election campaigns in which campaign managers sought to motivate people by using messages of incitement and hate,” says Arbel.
“These flames have not died down, especially because the possibility of new elections remains strong, and so this is why I initiated the Covenant of Mutual Respect.
“We don’t need to agree to everything, but we should disagree without hatred.”
And, indeed, Arbel does have severe ideological disagreements on some of the most critical issues that divide Israeli society.
On matters of religious pluralism, for example, the Shas MK declines to give any quarter to those calling for a loosening of the religious establishment’s control over religious life and personal status.
Arbel roundly rejects demands for civil marriage, despite large public support for it in opinion polls. According to polls conducted for the Hiddush religious pluralism group, 68% of the Jewish public favored a civil marriage option, while 72% wanted public transport options on Shabbat.
Arbel argues that the state already recognizes civil marriages performed abroad, and contends that it is more illiberal to institute a civil marriage option in Israel, because, he says, it could undermine the integrity of the Jewish people.
“A true liberal doesn’t believe only in freedom from religion, he believes in and honors the right to freedom of religion.”
He balks, however at the suggestion that the ultra-Orthodox parties are blocking the democratic desire of a large majority of citizens for greater freedom from the religious establishment. Arbel claims that the current political constellation would not have occurred if citizens truly sought such liberalizing policies, despite the fact that the right-wing, Orthodox parties to do not currently enjoy a majority in Knesset.
“My ability to be sure that my grandchild and the grandchild of a Meretz MK can in another 50 years get married, and our ability to be one people, are paramount, and we must preserve the national institutions that are responsible for guaranteeing this,” he says.
“As a Jewish state we must be able to function in the best way on issues that are at the heart and root of the Jewish people.”
Given his young age and his precipitous rise, questions naturally arise as to the ultimate aspirations of this Shas MK.
And his answer is both surprising and uncommon in the highly ambitious and zealous world of professional politics.
“I want to get to a stage where I have carried out a very significant and influential role and then immediately after that retire,” he declares.
The Shas MK says that he hopes to remain in politics for approximately six years, enjoy a stable and uninterrupted Knesset term “of accomplishment and intense parliamentary work,” and then retire from the Knesset.
“I don’t want to stay in politics too long. This line of work is a deposit which I need to give over to those who come after me, and leave a better country than that which I received when I entered the job, and then continue onward.”