By Larry Gordon
This is where all those changes get their final stamp of approval before being implemented outside these well-guarded wrought-iron gates. It is difficult to pass up an opportunity to walk the halls of Israel’s parliament building, where her diversity is on display wherever you happen to gaze or walk.
So much takes place on a daily basis that requires debate and back-and-forth haggling. Yet it is a relatively quiet and orderly place, where legislators with extremely different outlooks and opinions interface with one another regularly, smiling and talking with one another despite their severe disagreements.
MK Nissim Zeev, one of the senior members of Shas–the party founded by Rav Ovadya Yosef, zt’l, and inspired by him for decades–is one of the most congenial and friendly MK’s. He speaks an English that is limited but expressive, which may perhaps be related to his extensive contact with American Jewish supporters, combined with the fact that he has a sister who lives on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. To an extent, Rabbi Zeev is the religious and moral compass of the Knesset.
Despite a hectic day and the pressure to get home to light the menorah, he sat with us to discuss the issues of the moment. As we arrived at about 3:00 p.m. one day last week, the members were streaming down the hallways back to their offices after a heated Knesset debate.
I found the issue that was discussed rather shocking. It wasn’t about economic issues, defense funding, or whether or not to surrender valuable land to Arabs so as to show additional good faith in the hope of achieving some kind of a peace. The issue, which they just finished debating in the Knesset, was a proposed law that would allow Israeli police to go in and rescue Jewish girls who are involuntarily living with their Arab husbands or boyfriends in Arab villages in Israel.
And here’s the startling, even shocking news. Today there are over 30,000 young women between the ages of 16 and 18 living under these circumstances. As the law stands today, police are not permitted to go into those villages or homes and rescue these girls, even if they are aware that they are being held against their will.
How is it that these types of situations exist? One would think that it would be a slam dunk to get legislation passed that allows police to enter these villages and help save these girls. But not so fast. MK Zeev, who introduced the bill, explains why not.
“There is a large and influential sector of the Knesset that believes that freedoms need to be protected, regardless of the harm caused or damage done,” he explains. And one effect of this is that if 16-year-old or even younger Israeli girls get entangled in a bad and potentially dangerous situation, as of today, the law in Israel is not on their side. He adds that the mood in the Israel legislature today is such that almost all social issues are viewed from a liberal European perspective. Where that impacts on this situation is that if a law of this nature were to pass, then, for example, young women who wanted to stay with their Arab boyfriends, but whose parents wanted them “rescued,” might be pulled out against their will.
I asked MK Zeev, whose Shas party sits in the opposition today, why this is such a vital issue to him. He says that it has little to do with politics, but rather is a situation that is plaguing young women and their families in an increasing fashion. Shas is a party with primarily Sephardic community support, with an inordinate number of families having two things in common–the families are large and are struggling economically. (Though MK Zeev points out that the young women in this situation, whom the proposed legislation would affect, are from a broad cross-section of the Israel population.)
He says that the girls are largely in their mid-teens and are misled by the Arab men whom they meet at work, in the malls, or on the streets of the cities that they live in. The men do not necessarily reveal to the young ladies that they are Moslem at first but rather represent themselves as Jewish, frequently using a Jewish name while ingratiating themselves with the women, who later find out that they have been deceived, but find themselves helpless.
MK Zeev says that the women frequently are held against their will and often are terribly mistreated. Some are forced to work in homes in Arab villages throughout Israel. He says that they often start out as girlfriends or wives but soon end up being virtually enslaved. These Arab families live in multiple-dwelling structures that sometimes feature as many as four or five generations of family. The girls are therefore watched around the clock, making any type of escape plan close to impossible. According to organizations dedicated to saving these women from abusive situations–organizations like Yad L’achim and Lahava–some of the girls who cross over to live in Arab villages that dot the Israel landscape are as young as 11 years old.
On the day that we visited the Knesset and sat with MK Zeev, he had just emerged from a grueling debate on the issue in the plenum, one that did not, at that point, reach any conclusion. He says that testimony was offered but–as the sponsor of the legislation to allow the police to enter these villages to rescue the young women–he had not allowed the proposed law to come up for a vote. “I saw that we are making progress in the direction of changing and strengthening the law. I will wait a few more weeks,” he said. “We are not there yet.”
Following our meeting with MK Nissim Zeev, I texted MK Dov Lipman. I wrote that we were done and that if he was still in the building we would very much like to meet. He responded that he was in his office and that we should come right down. It turned out not to be that simple. Perhaps because he is a relatively new member of Knesset, even the people we asked for directions were not certain where his office was located.
After a few minutes of walking the long corridors with the shiny floors, there it was, the office of MK Dov Lipman. There was no hesitant or broken English spoken here. It looked to me like the office staff routinely communicates with one another and with the MK in English, which is as new and refreshing as it is unusual in the Knesset.
Getting to know Rabbi Lipman has been a refreshing and eye-opening experience. Being able to converse with him without the language barrier is just an extra added attraction. He is enthusiastic about the progress he is making and the duties and responsibilities he has been assigned by his Yesh Atid party. That might make it sound kind of simple, but rest assured that the situation is extremely complex.
Lipman is satisfied, and says that he has good and responsible people on his side. His critics, many with a political agenda, will tell you that he is either a traitor to the cause or selling himself out in order to advance his political career.
The system that existed in the Chareidi community until last year’s elections was plainly unhealthy and unsustainable. At the same time, the changes that are needed cannot be accomplished with a flick of a switch. They are arduous and, because the Chareidi parties are not part of the Netanyahu governing coalition, they are putting up determined and stiff opposition to the drastic changes that MK Lipman and his party want to bring to the country.
And that is the case even though the Chareidi parties know that the lack of a minimal secular education in their yeshivas is leaving an increasingly large potential workforce unemployable and dependent on government assistance for their above-average-size families.
This is the precise issue that MK Dov Lipman has taken head on and dealt with directly from the get-go. His critics will say that he is at the helm of the effort to reduce aid to yeshivas in Israel. He will tell you that yes, aid is being reduced to yeshivas which adamantly refuse to introduce a curriculum that includes English and math. “They will also not tell you what is being done with that money,” Rabbi Lipman says. “The money is being exclusively earmarked for job training in the Chareidi sector.”
What can I say? It was a fascinating exercise to come out of two Knesset meetings and not hear a word about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was meeting with the Prime Minister less than a mile away. Or, for that matter, to hear that the Knesset committees were busy discussing the Iranian nuclear threat or some similar type of situation. Instead, the issues of the day dealt with everyday societal challenges. It was a wonderful display of the internal Israel struggling with important issues vital to her future without the need, for a change, of worrying about what someone out there might think.
The great thing about the Knesset is the structure of the democratic balance of power and how things can change dramatically in just a moment. Today the Chareidi parties, like Shas and United Torah Judaism, are aligned with the opposition, which includes leftists in the Labor party willing to trade half of Jerusalem and Israel’s vital security for Arab promises that would be impossible for the other side to fulfill. (I’d like to revise that and say that they say they are willing to make painful concessions in exchange for an elusive peace, but that’s just political rhetoric laced with falsehoods.)
It was nice to see the real Israel at work for a change, dealing with matters like saving the lives of young Jewish girls and the struggle to give the heads of households the ability and opportunity to support their own families. There is probably nothing more important. v
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