Kahana, Amsalem controversies - opinion

It is definitely time that the Knesset revamp the rules of conduct in the plenum and lay down proper sanctions against those in breach of them.

 DEPUTY RELIGIOUS Services Minister Matan Kahana speaks at a conference of Democrat TV, in Jaffa earlier this month. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
DEPUTY RELIGIOUS Services Minister Matan Kahana speaks at a conference of Democrat TV, in Jaffa earlier this month.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Last week Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana caused an uproar because of what he said to students in the communal religious high school Derech Avot in Efrat.

The paragraph that got many liberal and left-wing Jews and most Arabs in Israel up in arms was the following: “I think that the chance for peace does not exist – certainly not in the foreseeable future. I can say about myself that if a button existed, that one could press, which would banish all the Arabs [from Israel] – sending them by an express train to Switzerland, where they could live a stunning life... I would press this button. But, what to do? there is no such button.... Therefore, it is apparent that we are destined to exist [side by side] in this land, one way or another.”

Despite my basic views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I have long accepted the reality that both we and the Palestinians would be more than delighted if the opposite side would simply disappear. This sentiment is expressed in milder or more brutal terms – whether it is Jewish hoodlums on soccer fields who yell “Death to the Arabs,” or Palestinian rioters who yell “itbah el Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”), or the words uttered by Matan Kahana, which were not violent, even though he could have chosen his words more carefully.

“Train to Switzerland” in Hebrew – rakevet leShveitz – sounds a little like rakevet leAuschwitz, which has clear historical connotations. In fact, Kahana himself admitted that he should have been more careful in his choice of words.

What I found very positive in what he said was the fact that he didn’t mince words when he spoke of the reality that neither we nor the Palestinians will suddenly vanish, and that we shall continue to inhabit this land together. I doubt whether high school or yeshiva students in Judea and Samaria frequently hear this basic reality from National-Religious educators or politicians. However, I was a little less impressed when I realized that the Derech Avot high school, where Kahana spoke, is part of the Modern Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone network of religious institutions of learning, founded by the liberal Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

MIRVIS WAS officially installed by Ohr Torah Stone founder Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. (credit: PICTURED IN GUSH ETZION; HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)MIRVIS WAS officially installed by Ohr Torah Stone founder Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. (credit: PICTURED IN GUSH ETZION; HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Though Riskin no longer advocates the two-state solution, as he did in the past, he did support the establishment of the government of change and the participation of Ra’am in the coalition. I doubt whether Kahana would be allowed to speak to students in the majority of high schools or yeshivot in Judea and Samaria, where, since the government of change was established, he is viewed as a heretic and traitor.

But to return to what Kahana said in Efrat, there was another paragraph that, in my opinion, was much more disturbing than the first one. “There is an approach that says that if we shall return to the 1967 lines, there will be peace, and there will be two states living side by side, and everything will be yoffi toffi [hunky-dory],” he said.

“I don’t believe in this.... We were banished from our state 2,000 years ago, we waited for an opportunity, we returned to it. We believe that God gave us the state, and no one can tell us that it is not all ours. True, the Arabs have a different story that they tell themselves. We know that it is nonsense, and we know that it is not true, but this is the story that they tell themselves.”

“We believe that God gave us the state, and no one can tell us that it is not all ours. True, the Arabs have a different story that they tell themselves. We know that it is nonsense, and we know that it is not true, but this is the story that they tell themselves.”

Matan Kahana

There is no doubt that in both the Zionist and Palestinian narratives, there are numerous legends and inaccuracies, side by side with hard facts. To refer to the Nakba (“Catastrophe,” a term Palestinians use to describe 1948 War of Independence) merely as nothing but nonsense and lies is a denial of reality, since it is an undeniable fact that as a result of our War of Independence, the majority of the Arab inhabitants of what became the Jewish state either escaped or were thrown out from their homes by our forces, and turned into refugees.

How can Kahana believe that Jews and Palestinians will somehow manage to create some sort of viable coexistence, if both sides continue to totally reject the narrative of the other side? It is not enough to tell the students of Derech Avot that both we and the Arabs are here to stay – they must also be told that no sort of accommodation between us is possible unless we acknowledge each other’s narratives.

David Amsalem

MK DAVID AMSALEM has become infamous among the supporters of the current government in the past year, due to his vicious speeches in the Knesset plenum against the government and its members, and disparaging heckling while members of the coalition speak.

Nevertheless, every once in a while, we still get a glimpse of the folksy Amsalem, whom we got to know and feel fondness for, when he first entered the Knesset in 2015. This Amsalem opened his kitchen to TV cameras and participates in cooking contests, offered his jacket to Transportation Minister Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, who was freezing one day in the plenum, and last Wednesday offered blessings to his colleagues, by virtue of his having served as sandak at the brit of his sister’s grandson, earlier that day.

I find the tradition of a sandak, brides and other participants in religious ceremonies offering blessings to those surrounding them to be a charming practice. Many years ago, I was greatly touched by the blessing I received from a religious bride whom I drove to her wedding.

However, the case of Amsalem was both irregular and somewhat embarrassing. He performed the blessings in the Knesset plenum, while the plenum was in session (the chairman of the setting was Deputy Speaker David Bitan of the Likud).

Apparently, the act was not planned in advance, since at first Amsalem didn’t have a kippah available, and placed a piece of paper on his head as he gave his blessings. Later on, as more and more MKs and parliamentary assistants from the opposition bowed their heads in front of him, a kippah turned up.

MK Galit Distal Atbaryan (Likud) tweeted “right now, in the plenum, a moment sweeter than honey for the Second Israel – Dudi Amsalem, with a kippah on his head, is blessing Amir Ohana for success, health and prosperity. For God’s sake: what a beautiful opposition we have!”

For Atbaryan, and I suspect also for Amsalem himself, the whole event in the plenum was also an act of defiance against the (allegedly) dominant secular Ashkenazi culture.

I looked at the articles in the Knesset Rules of Procedures that deal with rules of conduct in the plenum. There is nothing there that relates directly to what Amsalem had done, and much of what does appear is simply not implemented (for example, the ban on the use of cellphones in the plenum). It is definitely time that the Knesset revamp the rules of conduct in the plenum and lay down proper sanctions against those in breach of them.

Unfortunately, at this time it is unlikely that anything can be done in this respect, especially since the current opposition thrives on the chaos, for which it is primarily (though not exclusively) responsible.

The writer, born in Haifa in 1943, worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her book Israel’s Knesset Members: A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job will be published by Routledge at the end of July.