Disgraces in the Knesset

A sudden death brought about squabbles in the Knesset - and questions of morality.

The Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For the ideologue or the religious zealot convinced of the justice of the cause, the ends justify the means. Along the way basic principles of civility and human courtesy are thrown by the wayside as bothersome obstacles to achieving the end goal.
This was on display in the past few days as the coalition and opposition clashed over Shabbat legislation. Referred to as the “mini-market bill,” the proposed law would empower the interior minister – presently Arye Deri of Shas – to block municipal bylaws relating to the opening of businesses on Shabbat. Currently the power to make these decisions is rightly delegated to each individual city, town and local authority to be used in accordance with the local circumstances and religious climate. Tel Aviv is after all very different from Jerusalem, Bnei Brak is not Beersheba. The new legislation seeks to centralize power in the hands of an ultra-Orthodox minister who would like to shut down not only public transportation and all commercial activity, but also cultural activities as well.
The Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – have transformed the bill into a make or break vote, putting all their political clout behind it. The problem is that the coalition is not united. MKs from Yisrael Beytenu, who represent a decidedly secular constituency, many of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, vowed to vote against the legislation. One MK from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and another one from the Likud are deliberating what to do.
Further complicating matters was the failing health of Shas’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, who was hospitalized and prevented by doctors’ orders from coming to the Knesset to vote.
Then came the tragic death of Yaffa Glick, the wife of MK Yehuda Glick, which threw the entire Haredi legislative push into a tailspin.
With Glick sitting shiva, the coalition was unable to ensure a majority for the vote. Coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) attempted to soften the bill, to allow gas-station convenience stores, and shops in Eilat, to remain open, but the Haredi parties refused.
This is where things got messy – and nasty. MKs from the opposition parties, though fully aware that there was technically a majority for the legislation but that this majority could not be realized at the scheduled time of the vote, nevertheless refused to extend a basic courtesy: An opposition MK absences himself, thus “canceling out” one opposition vote for each coalition member who is unable to vote due to unavoidable circumstances – such as hospitalization or the death of a relative.
In the vote on the first reading of the “mini-market bill,” Meretz MK Ilan Gilon, though bitterly opposed, magnanimously agreed to absence himself. But this time around neither he nor any other opposition lawmaker was willing to extend this courtesy.
The Haredi parties refused to back down. Deri set about trying to put pressure on the mourning Glick to get up from shiva for long enough to come to the Knesset and vote. Deri admitted as much on his Twitter account: “I feel the pain of Yehudah Glick over the death of his wife. Yesterday I asked... for the rabbi of the town Otniel [where Glick lives] if there was a halachic possibility for him to come to the Knesset during the shiva for the vote that was supposed to happen today and is meant to preserve the holiness of Shabbat. If I hurt the feelings of my friend Yehudah, I apologize.”
Both sides ignored Glick’s pleas not to turn his wife’s death into a political issue. Deri wants to show his constituency that he is willing to do anything for the sake of “protecting” the Sabbath. In contrast, the opposition wants to show that it is fighting against “religious coercion.”
But the warring sides seem to have forgotten a basic Jewish tenet: derech eretz kadma l’Torah, which can be roughly translated from the Hebrew as “simple common decency comes before the strict letter of the law.”
From a strictly legal perspective, it might be permissible as an MK to refuse to absence oneself from a vote, and it might we halachically permissible to get up from shiva to cast an important vote, but common decency dictates otherwise.
Now that the vote has been delayed, the coalition has time to rethink its position. The “mini-market bill” is a bad idea. The government should take this week’s disgraces as a sign that it should change course.