January 20, 2013

Voting as a Jew – In Israel (Vote for Someone Honest)

Rabbi Haber

A few months ago, shortly before the American presidential election, I wrote a post challenging Jews living in the Diaspora to view their political choices – like all life's choices – through the prism of Torah values.

This week, it is our turn here in Israel to go to the polls, and my message now is the same: I can't tell anyone who to vote for, but I can tell you how you should vote. If you are a Jew living in Israel, you need to think as a Jew and you need to vote as a Jew. And to me at least, that means voting for what the Torah says and what the Torah wants.

Elaborating on this point requires its own post, however, because the issues here are so different than they are in the Diaspora. For one thing, the problem of dual loyalty which so troubles Diaspora Jews is simply not relevant here. This is one of the great blessings of living in the Jewish state. In another country, as I wrote then, Jews need to agonize about how to balance their commitment to being good citizens in the country of their residence with their commitment to their brothers in Israel and in other lands. The great blessing of independence is that we Israelis have no such dilemma.

But living in the Jewish state creates unique quandaries of its own. For one thing, there is the question of the proper relationship (or lack thereof) between religion and state. In this election, as in many previous ones, this is a hot issue, which even religious people are very divided about.

Some people support religious parties, like Shas and United Torah Judaism, which field only religious people on their Knesset lists (and in the case of these two parties, only religious men). Decisions in these parties – from the makeup of the Knesset list to which government to support and how to vote on various bills and issues – are made by a group of rabbis known as Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah – each party's Council of Torah Sages. The philosophy these parties promote is that Israel should be run exclusively according to Jewish law, and they thus believe that all of the decisions should be made by rabbis.[1] Other religious people, like the Likud's Moshe Feiglin largely share these goals, but believe the best way to advance them is to form a faction within a larger party that is not exclusively religious.

But some other parties which represent secular ideologies and believe in some degree of separation of religion from politics have also reached out to religious people. A good example of this is Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid party. Lapid represents a secular agenda and a largely secular constituency. But in sharp contrast to his late father (former Knesset member Tommy Lapid who won 15 Knesset seats for the Shinui party in the 2003 elections by running on a rabidly anti-religious platform), Lapid has taken pains to reach out to the religious people. He has gone so far as to place Rabbi Shai Piron (rabbi of Oranit and one of the heads of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikva) in the #2 slot on his list.

But the party with the currently most interesting spin on this issue, is perhaps the Bayit Yehudi party. Formerly the National Religious Party, it has a new name and a new leader, Naftali Bennett. Reflecting his belief in the need for a wide-tent, the Bayit Yehudi is fielding a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, in the #4 slot on their Knesset list. Officially, I suppose, this means that the party is no longer defined as an exclusively religious party. The tensions this creates in Israeli society can be seen in today's headlines – in the past 24 hours, the party has been attacked both by Shas for statements by Shaked deemed not sufficiently religious, and by the Tzippi Livni party for statements by anglo candidate Jeremy Gimpel that were deemed too religious!

Another related question that Israeli Jews need to ask themselves when voting as a Jew is what the Torah has to say about the various weighty issues the next Knesset and government will need to deal with. For example, does the Torah forbid, allow, or even require us to try to negotiate a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, even if that would require relinquishing territory? Does it require, allow or forbid Yeshiva students to be exempt from army service? Does it mandate a right-wing or a leftist economic agenda?

Many religious people, and many rabbis supporting various parties, would have us believe that the Torah takes unequivocal positions on these issues. In fact, one small party running for the Knesset has even run campaign ads claiming that the Rambam (Maimonides) himself would certainly vote for them if he were alive today!  Personally, I don't believe this to be true. As I have written, I believe strongly that a Jew must make all of his decisions according to his understanding of what the Torah commands. But as in any area of halacha (Jewish law) or Torah study, there is almost never one single point of view. There are arguments about these political issues as well, and virtually all of the parties could claim support of some Torah positions.[2]

There is, however, one point I think we should all be able to agree on. Sadly, however, this very crucial principle – which I believe is a universal Torah value and one that all secular people should also see as self-evident – seems to be largely absent from the Israeli consciousness. We can vote for candidates who express a range of political philosophies and views, but the one thing that it seems should be obvious is that our political leaders need to be law-abiding citizens and honest people of the highest personal integrity.

But apparently this point is not obvious to Israelis.  A recent study placed Israel among the world's most corrupt countries.  And Israelis don't seem to mind, since we consistently elect leaders who we know are dishonest and even corrupt.

The most egregious example of this in the current election is certainly the fact that Aryeh Deri is running as one of the heads of the Shas party. Deri is a charismatic leader and a talented politician who has arguably done a lot of positive things for Israeli society in his previous terms in office. But he's also a convicted criminal who sat in jail for several years for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Deri has never expressed remorse for his crimes, or even acknowledged them. Even after losing an appeal in the Supreme Court, he continues to protest his innocence and to insist that he was persecuted simply because of his Sephardic heritage.

Although he is the most prominent in this election, Deri is not the only example of this troubling phenomenon. Another is the Likud's Tzachi Hanegbi, who resigned from the Knesset in 2010 after being convicted of perjury – but is now running again. And former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was convicted last year of breach of trust and is still on trial for suspicions of bribery in the "Holyland Affair" almost ran as well.[3]

This is a very sad state of affairs for a nation that is supposed to be a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation" (Shmot 19:6). When appointing leaders, the very first thing that Moshe Rabbenu was told in the Torah was that they must be "men of truth who hate corruption" (Shmot 18:21). And the prophet Yeshayahu has told us (1:10-15; 21-23) that Jerusalem was destroyed because, even though we were scrupulously observant of ritual law, we were corrupt and persecuted the weak and defenseless. And he also declares (1:27) Zion B'mishpat Tipadeh – Zion shall be redeemed through justice.

Vote as a Jew.  Vote for whichever candidate you believe in, according to your own understanding of how we can best fulfill the Torah's commands.  But vote for someone upright and honest.

[1] This explains, for example, why Shas campaign ads consistently feature photos of their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. A visitor to Israel could be forgiven for mistakenly believing that the 91 year-old Torah scholar is running for Knesset. He isn't, of course. But a vote for Shas is actually a vote for him anyway, since he essentially controls the votes of all of their Knesset members.

[2] If you are interested, personally I'm voting for the Bayit Yehudi, since their positions are closest to my own. But I don't claim these views – many of which I believe in passionately – to be unanimous Torah views. Voting as a Jew means studying the issues, studying the Torah, and making a decision about the issues based on Torah.

[3]One could perhaps include Avigdor Liberman on this list as well. Liberman was Foreign Minister until a few weeks ago, when he resigned after being indicted on suspicions of breach of trust. He is running as the #2 candidate on the joint Likud-Yisrael Beteinu list. To be fair, however, Liberman has only been indicted – not yet convicted. He has resigned his ministerial post until after the trial. He maintains that he is innocent, but has announced that he will resign from politics completely if he is found guilty.

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