How Lapid can generate light, not just heat

Lapid must take this opportunity to create a balanced vision for the Jewish state.

yair lapid 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yair lapid 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In the run-up to the 2003 Knesset election, as the now defunct Shinui ("Change") Party was taking off in the polls (it would go on to win 15 mandates), I had a conversation with a friend who worked for one of that party's top MKs.

The problem with Shinui, I berated him, was not that it sought to drastically alter the status quo on religious matters, nor that it challenged the haredi parties' stranglehold over leftwing and rightwing coalitions alike. Shinui's "sin" was that it had no positive agenda and, most crucially, no suggestions for how we can build a non-orthodox, yet authentically Jewish society. With all the sophistication of a rebellious teenager, the only thought on Shinui's mind seemed to be breaking loose from the chains of orthodox coercion.

The most prominent example in those days was the issue of Shabbat. Shinui pushed to open the major shopping centers located outside of residential areas and, as a result, until today all stores in these centers are open on Shabbat.

But how exactly do throngs of Saturday shoppers in furniture or electronic stores enhance the Jewish nature of our society? Does it not just turn Israel into a cheap imitation of the worst aspects of America, where the logic of laissez faire economics means that stores open whenever it is profitable (this year, for instance, that even meant on Thanksgiving evening)?

Which brings me to former TV journalist Yair Lapid's new party, whose creation was announced on Sunday. If the wildly popular Channel 2 anchorman, and columnist for Yediot Ahronot, is to succeed in capturing the Israeli consensus, he must be a far greater leader than his father (the late Tommy Lapid, who founded the Shinui party). He must do more than just fan populist flames of anti-haredi sentiment, and instead, he must bring to the table a new, alternative vision for what a secular Jewish society should look like.

For such a vision to be authentic, it must recognize that Judaism's essence has always been to restrict the pursuit of our immediate and crude self-interest - as individuals and as a people. At its core, Judaism stands in contrast to a society governed by an attitude of unfettered laissez faire. It demands that we treat strangers in our midst fairly and compassionately, even though taking advantage of foreign workers means cheaper labor. Judaism obligates humane treatment of animals, even if their ill-treatment translates into cheaper meat and eggs for consumers.

And Judaism commands us to sanctify time, that we as a society take a break from our incessant daily grind to mark occasions or enjoy the fruit of our labor - even though it necessarily impedes on the unadulterated pursuit of profit. Ironically, it was the United States Supreme Court who made this argument most cogently in upholding the right of states to restrict commerce in McGowan v. Maryland (1961), a crucial case now largely ignored in present-day America. There, the justices said that government has a secular interest in restricting business on the Sabbath beyond its desire to merely "provide a one-day-in-seven work stoppage":

…the State [also] seeks to set one day apart from all others as a day of rest, repose, recreation and tranquility -- a day which all members of the family and community have the opportunity to spend and enjoy together, a day on which there exists relative quiet and disassociation from the everyday intensity of commercial activities, a day on which people may visit friends and relatives who are not available during working days.

Again, if Lapid's new movement is to succeed, he must articulate a new vision for a secular, yet authentically Jewish society. Returning to the issue of shopping malls on Shabbat as a case-in-point, such a vision could argue for strictly limiting what types of businesses could open on Shabbat, for example by allowing only purely recreational businesses (such as restaurants and movie theaters) to remain open.

There is an expression in English that one should strive in a debate to generate more light than heat. By giving the secular majority of Israelis a new, clear vision for our society instead of simply blasting haredi elements for their increasing extremism, Lapid (whose name means "torch") has the potential to realize that dictum. In doing so, he can go beyond "politics as usual," and this will be the key to capturing that Israeli middle ground he seeks.

The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.