When Gafni met Michaeli...

The old and new of this Knesset have to come together to bring the courage of ideas.

MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told members of the Labor Party that he was praying to God that they would join the government coalition, during a Knesset plenum speech that gained much publicity, in which he was the veteran MK welcoming a newcomer to the parliament: Merav Michaeli of Labor.
Michaeli said that she had requested that Gafni follow her.
Gafni began by saying that he had expected to cringe when he heard the new Labor MK speak. Instead, he said, he agreed with almost everything she said.
For me, as someone who has covered the Knesset on a day-to- day basis since the late 1980s, it brought back memories of other classic moments where – perhaps at first glance – those who are the furthest apart in our society, haredim and supposed antagonists who might be labeled secular leftist socialists, have expressed understanding and even friendship for one another.
Anyone who has covered the Knesset over the course of time knows that behind the scenes, MKs cooperate and even socialize in a way that might shock the outside world considering the differences that these politicians represent.
Still, the Michaeli-Gafni encounter, not in the cafeteria but live on television in the plenum, took me back 20 years to a New Year’s Eve state budget debate when the late MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, of UTJ, took to the plenum microphone and passionately deplored, with tears in his eyes, the phenomenon of a celebration in the building of a Jewish parliament on an occasion that in past decades and centuries had been used by drunken anti-Semites to assault, murder and massacre Jews.
One of the celebrants, Ofir Pines of – yes – the Labor Party, asked for “the floor,” and apologized.
He said that he had no idea that the New Year’s Eve toast would emit such emotions, adding that the get-together was just a behind-the-scenes excuse to have a good time amid the tedious seemingly endless budget debate.
Maybe it was the after-midnight hour that seems to make everything more emotional and dramatic, but the way Ravitz and Pines walked away with mutual understanding made me feel that life in this country could be so much better if we just respected – no, not agreed with – one another.
Then, there was the weekly Wednesday question time, during the late 1980s’ Labor-Likud unity government, when a number of MKs, including the likes of Mapam MK Yair Tzaban, launched what could be described as nothing less than a verbal assault on then-police minister Haim Bar-Lev, after a haredi MK complained that authorities chose a Friday night to descend upon a haredi home to collect an outstanding property tax debt because they knew that the man would be home at the time.
These secular parliamentarians shouted at the minister: “Where was the sensitivity of what a Friday night meal means to a religious family, was there no other way to collect the debt, no matter how outstanding the debt might have been?”
Here, too, the integrity of politicians who call themselves civil rights activists to fight for those with whom they disagreed ideologically was a sight for sore eyes, certainly not what people seem to expect from the Knesset.
After decades, the cynicism has certainly set in. Gafni is a fast-talking, slick chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
He used the comments by Michaeli of the control by the powerful over the weak to serve his own viewpoint of society against the haredim.
He pressed the right buttons, saying that women should get the same salaries as men for the same jobs. After all, that also helps the haredi family structure where the woman’s job can help allow the man to study.
It also followed a Gafni warning, the day before, to the religious- Zionist members of the Knesset, that when they joined forces with Yair Lapid’s late father in the days of the Sharon government, at the expense of the haredim, the ultimate response was the 2005 Gaza disengagement.
I understand all of that. I know from where Gafni speaks. His subliminal message to Michaeli and her Labor colleagues was that Bayit Yehudi’s leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid counterpart Yair Lapid make an odd couple, and that the haredi sector can counter them with an alliance with Labor. (Shas leader MK Arye Deri has also been reported to have held contacts with Labor over whether it would join the government.) However, what made the Michaeli-Gafni encounter so special was that it was the firsttime parliamentarian – Michaeli – with very definitive views and a background that many in Israeli society would consider controversial up against the old-timer – Gafni – with a lifestyle that large segments of Israelis consider appalling, and each made the most of the opportunity from their own perspective to create a defining moment.
Michaeli called herself a feminist; Gafni said that in haredi society, the woman is seen as greater than the man.
Can they sit down together and convince each other of their opposing views? I don’t know. I’m not sure that I care.
That’s not the point.
Call me naïve. Call it political opportunism. Call me sick and tired of the people who say that there are two opinions, mine and the wrong opinion. Call me a sucker for speeches, whatever the motive, that seek the common denominator.
OK, so it was cute that Interim Knesset Speaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer felt compelled to say “You can’t kiss,” when Michaeli stood up to greet the haredi Gafni as he came down from the podium.
Most importantly, the smiles, the sense of humor and the momentary good feelings have to be translated into talk, even before action. The old and new of this Knesset have to come together to bring the courage of ideas, even as the new members of the Knesset remember that they did not invent the wheel, that they should continue the legacy of those before them who have shown that there can be political integrity.
David Ze’ev is a political correspondent at Israel Radio’s English News.