Her national service

MK Dr. Ruth Calderon describes Yesh Atid’s constituents’ disappointment in the party, and is not sure if going into politics ‘was the right thing’ for her to do.

ruth calderon 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ruth calderon 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘I’ve worked for many years as an educator,” says MK Dr. Ruth Calderon. “I think I’ve done pretty good work and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Even after these many tumultuous months in the Knesset, I still wonder if it has been time well-spent, though I have successfully lobbied for Jewish renewal there.”
Like many of us, Calderon – one of Yesh Atid’s newest faces in the 19th Knesset – had her own soul searching to do as Yom Kippur came and went.
“I definitely ask myself whether going into politics was the right decision for me,” says the 52-year-old MK, who previously served as director of Alma College and at the National Library in Jerusalem.
A talmudic and rabbinic literature scholar, she grew up with a Bulgarian- born father who was an agricultural expert and Revisionist. “I learned to be a nationalist and Zionist from him and my mother, a bleeding-heart liberal full of compassion and humanism, whose roots are in Germany.”
Calderon, a divorced mother of three, loves literature and poetry. She hardly ever watches TV, preferring radio talk shows (“I love listening to people talk”). When she was young, she practiced ballet and later danced with Yoav Ashriel’s Israeli folk-dancing troupe. In New York a decade ago as an emissary, she fulfilled one of her dreams by studying Flamenco in “the studio where Fred Astaire danced.”
The athletic MK makes her way around the city on a moped; she rides her bike in the park while her Labrador, Zoe, runs alongside. When she has time, she goes swimming in the Mediterranean.
In her short time at the Knesset, she has drawn fire on a number of occasions for statements she made that were considered a bit out of place. “I did not demand special rooms for women MKs to put on makeup,” she explains, referring to comments she reportedly made earlier this year. “Since we are endlessly being filmed in the plenum, I simply asked if we could use – for a fee – the Knesset TV channel’s makeup artists, who work in a room right next to the plenum hall. If this is the issue that people are making such a big deal about, then I believe this is a result of the anti-Yesh Atid atmosphere that’s been forming.”
Do you regret jumping into these rushing waters [of politics]?
I don’t regret my decision, but I’m sad since I had to resign from Alma, a Jewish cultural and educational institution that I founded in 1996, which has suffered a crisis since I resigned as director. Currently they don’t have anyone to raise money. I believe that the state should be funding institutions like Alma.
I went into politics not to save Alma, but to save every organization connected with Jewish renewal, since they have never been given the financial resources they need – except perhaps during the term of the late education minister Zevulun Hammer, who understood their importance. Unfortunately the secular political world does not recognize the importance of Torah study in non-religious settings.
How have you managed to overcome the guilt you feel with respect to Alma?
Maybe by knowing that I’m not a servant of any one organization, even if I founded it. I only answer to the big boss [she points up], whether He exists or not. Whatever I do, it’s clear to me who my real boss is.
And have you done any soul-searching as far as Yesh Atid’s status in the Knesset?
Where I come from, no one judges others after just a few months. But in politics, they judge you even after just one week. I don’t understand how anyone could accomplish serious and important tasks so quickly. Yesh Atid underwent a public opinion swing, from love to hate. In the most recent election, voters had a messianic-like hope that the party would make a difference, but this cannot be carried out so quickly.
In the past, you supported the idea of a Greater Israel.
Yes, that’s true. In the 1984 election for the 11th Knesset, when I was serving as a soldier in the Education Corps, I saw the amazing things [former IDF chief of staff] Rafael Eitan did with “Raful’s Boys” at the Havat Hashomer military base. I said to myself, this man should be the prime minister, so when I was finally eligible to vote, I voted for the joint Tzomet-Tehiya list. I’ve since moved to other places.
So there’s a chance that you could have ended up living in a settlement?
My heart is very much in Judea and Samaria; I would have been very happy living in the first or second books of Samuel. But already when I was a student at the Hebrew University, I decided not to join my friends who made their homes across the Green Line. I grew up with romantic ideas of what it was like to live in Gush Etzion, since my father had been part of the force protecting the area during the War of Independence. When peace finally arrives, I’ll be more than happy to move there.
Would you be willing to leave the Maoz Aviv neighborhood of north Tel Aviv, where you grew up?
I’m not sure.
What’s your opinion about current politics?
I believe that land does not belong to human beings. It’s not ours or theirs. We’re just tenants here. And as the Torah says, if we don’t behave properly, the land will be taken away from us. To prevent this from happening, it would be advisable to incorporate in discussions more women and religious leaders, such as the late Rabbi Menachem Froman. I believe that this could help bring about peace; it would be much more effective than pressure from the Americans.
Calderon says she never dreamed of becoming an MK and that “it was the farthest thing from my mind.” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had been talking with her for years about her going into politics, she says, but “I felt that I wasn’t built for that.” She joined the Yesh Atid list “so that Jewish renewal would have a voice in the Knesset. I never expected to be ranked No. 13, though.”
So how did you make the decision to take the plunge and go into politics?
I saw all of the quality people who had joined Yair, and I realized that something serious would come of it. I said to myself, “You’re 50 – it’s time to stop complaining. It’s time to do something about it.”
I knew that politics doesn’t always work out and that academics and educators sometimes fail when they go into politics, but I decided to consider it a type of national service.
Compared with the other new MKs who are trying to create a niche for themselves within the Knesset, you’ve arrived with a finished product.
My reason for joining the Knesset was to further promote the Jewish renewal ideas and projects that I’ve been busy with all these years. I am also interested in promoting cultural activities and animal rights.
I’m sad to see that cultural activities receive very minimal budgets and so much talent is being wasted. This is our greatest natural resource, and we are lucky to have such a serious culture and sport minister, Limor Livnat, from whom I’ve learned so much.
Is there anything that surprised you after you became an MK?
I didn’t realize just how hard everybody there works. Many people would disagree, since plenum sessions are usually half-empty. There are always many Yesh Atid members at plenum sessions, including myself. I’m there all week and only take time off for the weekends – like my daughter, who’s serving in the army.
Other than being surprised at how hard MKs work, I’ve also met people whom I never expected to admire, such as Yitzhak Vaknin [Shas], with whom I’ve established a cultural lobby in the Knesset. And I expected Meshulam Nahari of Shas to be my enemy, but in reality he’s someone that I find myself going to often for advice. I’ve also been extremely impressed by new Yisrael Beytenu, whom I didn’t know at all beforehand. The Knesset functions smoothly and professionally. Everything works like clockwork.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the new Knesset cultural lobby you have established?
Sure. We would like to make some changes, especially in the way no-confidence votes are abused, especially when the plenum is practically empty. Before a no-confidence vote can be carried out, there needs to be drama and tension. I believe the way things are debated in the Knesset affects Israeli discourse.
Calderon's preoccupation with Jewish issues has made her the equivalent of a bullfighter’s red cape for some of the haredi MKs.
“For Sephardi haredi members, as I mentioned before, I’m not at all a red cape,” she says. “Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing for the [United Torah Judaism] MKs. Especially one in particular.”
Are you referring to Moshe Gafni, who told you to shut up [during a Knesset debate earlier this year]?
He was out of line, but he did apologize afterward. After he spoke quite rudely about Lapid, I criticized him for spreading baseless hatred just one day after Tisha Be’av, and I quoted a line from the Torah. I was amazed at how freaked out he was that I could competently quote Jewish sources. While haredi Jews supposedly want every Jew to learn Torah, we’ve let them get used to thinking that the Torah belongs only to them.How did you feel when Gafni yelled at you?
I was embarrassed for him. It was like seeing someone slip on a banana peel.
You quarreled with Gafni, but you’ve also connected with some Likud members.
Yes, I have found [Likud Beytenu MK] Moshe Feiglin to be polite and quite a gentleman. But when he starts talking about building the Third Temple, I don’t get him at all. Nevertheless, I invited him to speak about this subject in the Knesset Jewish learning group that I founded with [Education Minister and fellow Yesh Atid MK] Shai Piron. Building a Third Temple today? That would be extremely dangerous.
What prompted you to become active in Jewish Renewal? Are you following in the footsteps of your great-grandfather, who was a rabbi in Bulgaria?
That’s part of the reason. I grew up in a home that was traditional and secular at the same time. The Jewishness of my home was also very nationalistic. Actually I grew up with a jumbled identity, and everything I do is an effort to straighten things out.
You, the great-granddaughter of a rabbi, called for the annulment of the Chief Rabbinate?
The Chief Rabbinate does not serve the majority of Israeli citizens. The haredi community does not need it, since they have their own rabbis, who are more stringent. Even if I loved [late Shas spiritual adviser] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that doesn’t mean I need to finance his son, who was elected to the post of chief Sephardi rabbi.
I think it would be better to follow a system where rabbis don’t take government salaries, such as Jaffa’s Bulgarian rabbi Avraham Bachar, who used to go watch soccer games after the Shabbat morning prayers.
If it had been possible, do you think you would have become a rabbi?
I’m not rabbinic material, but if I were a man, I wouldn’t have to work so hard to pave the way. Being secular and a woman in a world that revolves around the Talmud makes things difficult. A haredi woman from Bnei Brak called me yesterday to tell me that she voted for Yesh Atid (unbeknownst to her husband), since she has faith in my approach to Judaism. I understand where she’s coming from. When I was young, it really bothered me that I couldn’t see the Torah scroll from up close, but only from the gallery upstairs.
By the way, when I saw the movie Yentl as a child, I greatly identified with her. When Barbra Streisand came to Israel this summer, apparently someone told her about my maiden Knesset speech, so she invited me to her show. Of course, I insisted that I buy my own ticket, since it’s forbidden for members of Knesset to receive gifts. After the show, I had a fascinating conversation with her backstage. I was so impressed that the freer she became as a woman, the stronger her connection to Judaism became.
What’s been the highlight of your time in the Knesset so far?
Working on the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, with MKs Ayelet Shaked [Bayit Yehudi] and Yariv Levin [Likud]. In the end, I was forced to submit a separate bill from them after our joint effort failed. They wouldn’t agree to include a clause about democracy and equality, and I’m not willing to compromise on issues of democracy.
Did you suggest changing the Israeli national anthem?
I love the anthem. I am emotionally connected to it; I would never allow even one word of it to be changed. But at the same time, I would suggest adopting an additional anthem, such as a song by the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, which could be sung by non-Jews as well.
If Lapid could form the “ultimate government,” he would appoint you as culture and sport minister. Would that make you happy?
That’s a huge compliment for me. If I were ever to serve as a minister, that’s the ministry I would choose, but in the meantime, I have so much to do as an MK.
If you were appointed culture and sport minister, what would be the first thing you’d change?
I would fight for raising the ministry’s budget, since culture is an integral part of our identity.You’ve complained that as a single mother, your salary has gone down since you were voted into the Knesset.
I didn’t complain. I was just citing a fact. As a Knesset member, I am forbidden to receive a salary from any place other than the Knesset. All of us have experienced salary cuts as a result. Some Yesh Atid members have suffered much more serious cuts than I have, such as Lapid and Yaakov Peri.
Isn’t a salary of NIS 38,000 a month enough?
It comes out much lower after taxes (NIS 21,000). But in any case, not only do I think that MKs’ salaries are sufficient, I would like to propose a bill that anyone whose gross salary is above NIS 30,000 needs to donate 10 percent of it to needy people. And until such a law is passed, I will transfer 10% of my monthly salary from the Knesset to the volunteer organization Psifas, which directly helps needy people. I hope other MKs will do likewise.
How long do you think your pact with Bayit Yehudi will last?
Our pact with party leader Naftali Bennett was made retroactively, like something that two people who get stuck in an elevator would make together. Things didn’t work out for Bennett with Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu], and we weren’t successful with [former Labor leader] Shelly [Yacimovich], so we got stuck with each other, and together we formed an alliance of the two issues that are most important to me: Jewish identity and civil marriage.But when it comes to how peace talks should be handled, it looks like we’ll probably have quite differing ideas. I hope that this does not lead to a split between the two parties.
And how long do you estimate your relationship with the Knesset will last?
I like to think of this as my national service. I didn’t come to the Knesset in search of a second career in politics. As long as people feel that I’m contributing, I will stay on.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.