Secularism reemerging?

Newly elected Meretz head MK Zehava Gal-On speaks with ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about her recent primary win, her plans to revitalize the Left and her vision for the country’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab minorities.

Zehava Gal-On 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Dor Gerbash)
Zehava Gal-On 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Dor Gerbash)
Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On, facing off against two contenders in her party’s primary in early February, swept the polls to become the leftwing party’s chairman, making her the third woman to head a political party during the current Knesset session. Garnering a stunning 61 percent of the vote during polling conducted in the party’s stronghold of Tel Aviv, Gal-On rallied her supporters by promising a return to Meretz’s roots, including renewed opposition to the prominent role of religion in Israel’s political landscape and what she sees as unwarranted support for the settlements by the government.
Already making waves and capitalizing on public antipathy towards the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in light of recent outbreaks of violence in Beit Shemesh, Gal-On has recently proposed legislation that would treat newly secular former haredim as new immigrants for the purposes of financial and educational aid. Gal- On sat down with The Jerusalem Post in her Knesset office to discuss the issues of religion and state currently making headlines in Israel and, indeed, around the world.
To what do you attribute your recent victory in the Meretz party primary? I presented to the Meretz voters a comprehensive worldview, a commitment to a struggle for the citizens, government and social [progress of Israel]. I presented that as one worldview and I said to the Meretz voters that the only chance for Meretz to return and be a significant party is if there will be a differentiation between Meretz and the three parties that are in the center. Today, there stand in the center Kadima, Labor and [journalist-turned-politician Yair] Lapid. If, at the head of Meretz, will stand a candidate who is no different from Shelly Yacimovich of Labor who also speaks about social issues, why should anyone vote for Meretz? I speak about the connection between the struggle for democracy, the struggle against the occupation and the struggle for social justice. I speak about one unified struggle.
I presented Meretz as it was in the good old days: authentic, insolent, rebellious, energetic, unconventional with a worldview that doesn’t follow the currents but [stands firm] even if it is not popular – even if its not in the consensus.
The members of Meretz were convinced that [the party’s only] chance was to have me at the head.
At its height your party held 12 seats in Knesset and now the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu has those numbers.
How do you account for this shift from the Left to the Right? There is a struggle over the appearance and image of Israeli society: if it will be a democratic society, open and pluralistic, or a society that is democratic for Jews only.
This last summer there was the social-protest movement.
We are going to return to the Knesset and we will busy ourselves there with social legislation. In fact though, when we came back to this Knesset all that we witnessed was anti-democratic legislation [intended] to harm Israeli civil-society organizations, the High Court and the free press; legislation that wants to annex Judea and Samaria – legislation that functions only for the good of the settlers. So that is not simple to say that Meretz, which today has three mandates, will have 15 mandates like [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman, but definitely Meretz can jump and [improve its standing].
I think that today the public sees that there really is a fight between the law of the state, or the law of heaven. I am not only speaking about the haredim, but also about the settlers.
We are witnesses not only to the matter of the discrimination and separation of women, we are also witnesses that there is a sector of society that does not accept the rule of the government. We have seen conflict about this topic. There lies Meretz’s opportunity to say we are on the Left, we are not going to the Center.
I think that our voters are ideological voters who want to end the occupation and who want a welfare state inside the Green Line, and not outside.
You have said that you want to bring the social protests into politics. What does that entail on a practical level? We in Meretz have a commitment to equality. Our point of departure is equality with no differences regarding religion, race, gender… and we are obligated to make all of the citizens of the country equal, as well as the residents who are not citizens and the refugees and foreign workers.
We want to change Israel’s order of priorities. Our inside the limits of the State of Israel. That’s our battle.
Lapid stated that he sees the recent cases of highprofile haredi extremism as a reaction to increasing openness and integration coming from that sector. What do you make of this? I very much believe in integration. I believe that the exit from poverty for the haredi sector is of necessity connected to their lack of integration in the workplace.
This obligates two things: the first being the study of secular subjects.
It is impossible to integrate haredim into the secular, democratic world if they do not have a grounding in several of the basic educational fields, such as civics, geography, mathematics, and so forth.
I think that integration into the job market will raise people up from poverty.
I think that the haredi leaders who try to keep their people… in the shtetl and [prevent them from learning] secular studies so they will not integrate into the workforce… are not fair to their people.
The haredi leadership isn’t fair to its own people? Yes. The leadership, rabbis and also others, that do not allow people to integrate [are to blame]. It’s impossible to live only in your separate world anymore; the world is changing. You can’t live only on government allowances.
I very much believe in civilian national service in the haredi community. I have no problem if they do not go to the army, they can do civilian service within the community [such as] Magen David Adom and ZAKA [rescue and recovery organization].
Don’t your voters believe it to be unfair that the haredim don’t share the burden of defending the country? My son does 65 days of reserve duty a year and there is no equality, but I think that a pluralistic society can allow that there are those who serve but that you don’t need everybody, that way the army is more professional.
Those who do not serve should do a civilian replacement service instead of military service.
I am for everyone sharing the burden, but that doesn’t have to be in the framework of military service.
Do Israeli Arabs also need to serve? What is correct regarding the haredi community regarding poverty and integration is also correct for the Arab community. However, regarding the Arab community, it is more complex.
I very much think we have to think of a model that can help Arabs perform civilian service in the community, not out of compulsion, but from a dialogue.
What do you make of the nationalist-haredi agenda of someone like Shas renegade MK Haim Amsalem? Could you work with such haredi leaders? He is a very courageous MK. He came out against his community, against the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef], and brought forth a new model of a haredi who learns Torah but who also joins in the civil life of the country and also learns secular topics. I think that this is a model for courageous leadership.
Do you think you have a chance of getting haredi leaders to work with you given your reputation among the Orthodox as someone who is against religion? I am not a believer and I am not religious, but I am also not against religion. I am against people who use religion as a shovel to advance sectarian interests.
I think in a proper state, like the State of Israel, we need a separation between religion and the state and I work towards separating religion from the state. I am against having an Orthodox rabbinate that forces us to live according to its values from the moment that we are born until the moment that we die and tells us how we will be buried. I very much want civil marriage but I am not against Orthodox marriage.
I am not against religion and religious people; I am against people who use religion to compel others.
You recently proposed a bill that would grant immigrant benefits to haredim who leave Orthodoxy. What was the impetus for this proposed legislation? I met with young haredi men who became secular and who left their previous lifestyles. They are like new immigrants in their own state. They do not know how to function in general society. If they want to integrate into the workforce they need to complete their matriculation. These are basic things. They are missing basic education and the state bears a responsibility towards them. There has to be something along the lines of an absorption basket of services.
How do you respond to the ultra-Orthodox criticism that you are trying to entice people away from religion with fiduciary benefits?This law is not the solution [for haredim who want to stay haredi]. The state gives benefits to haredim who want to take them and there are programs for haredim [who continue to be haredi]. It is absurd that there are frameworks for haredim and for the secular but not for those who leave the haredi community.
What is your vision for the State of Israel? Is there a place for Judaism in the state?
I see the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and also of all its citizens. There are more than just Jews here, and in order that people will be able to live in their communities and to observe their faiths I think we have to separate between religion and politics.
We need complete religious freedom, as well as freedom from religion.