Roy Siegelmann
Roy Siegelmann

Interview with MK Moshe Arbel

MK Moshe Arbel (Courtesy)
MK Moshe Arbel (Courtesy)

Roy: Your honor, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Please briefly introduce yourself to the audience.

MK Moshe Arbel: I am 37 years old, born and living in Petah Tikvah, married and a father of five. I studied at military educational institutions, and then at the Yeshiva Nahalat David, which was the Yeshiva of the Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikvah, Rabbi Salomon, may he rest in peace. After Yeshiva, I married and then continued to be an Avreich at an Avreich Kollel, went through rabbinical studies, was tested for Semicha, and to date volunteer as a congregational rabbi in Petah Tikvah. After receiving Semicha, I went on to study law at the Charedi campus of Ono Academic College, and continued to the graduate degree with excellence. Afterwards I interned at the Shalom Court in Ramleh, and after a number of years became the parliamentary advisor of MK Yoav Ben-Tzur. Then, I became the Chief of Staff for Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri in the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of the Negev and Galilee, and two years ago I became a Member of the Knesset. I dealt with handwritten religious documents, and was very connected to Rabbi Shalom Messas of Jerusalem, running an organization which dealt with his religious documents. This past year, I began studying toward a doctorate in Law at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya.

         I once took part in a program at Harvard’s business school, called “Maoz” [Strength], and was invited to speak at a conference at Harvard’s law school 2019 by Professor [Noah] Feldman about Law and Israeli Mizrahi Jews. During both of my times at Harvard, I took part in Hillel’s wonderful activities. I met students at the kosher food hall – we had food from the conference, but it was important to me to directly experience the lives of Jewish students on Campus, and like any good Jew, I experienced this through the food. So, I went to the kosher dining hall, paid the entrance fee, and sat with students. I was very happy to see that there were opportunities for observant students to learn there, which is not a trivial thing. I think that one of the main difficulties which faces Israel at this point is that of separate education for Haredi students [who wish to learn separately]. Currently, the American decision of Brown vs. Board of Education is being misused, stating that separate but equal is racist and problematic. This surely applies in the case of racial segregation, which is negative (and I am happy that the American Supreme Court eliminated it). However, when the separation is desired and on the basis of religion, this is an issue of freedom of religion, and rejection of this desire [on the part of Haredi students] is demagoguery.

Roy: As an MK representing Shas, which is a fundamentally religious party, what is your opinion – and what is the opinion of your party – on the issue of separation of church and state? How do you see this conflict developing in Israel?

MK Moshe Arbel: Other countries can afford to separate church and state. In Israel a democratic, Jewish state, any such separation is fiction: it is impossible to have such a division while the very existence of the state is based on its [Jewish] national identity. We have a Base Law which states that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and separation of the Jewish identity from the Israeli identity [of the country] is impossible, as a Jewish nation is one which has values that are both Jewish and democratic value. Thus, we must publicly preserve Jewish values, such as the observation of the Shabbat. Of course people should be allowed to observe or not in private – this is not contradictory.

Roy: Please speak a little about Shas: who are you as a party, what do you represent, who votes for you, etc.

MK Moshe Arbel: Our worldview, as a party, is to represent broad swaths of the Israeli public: people from the periphery, new immigrants, Mizrahi Jews, and more. Our primary mission is to provide a mouthpiece to the underrepresented people who have historically been silenced. Every party tells a story of sorts. The story which Shas tells is the Mizrahi story. Let us examine things objectively: of all 15 members of Israel’s Supreme Court, only one justice is Mizrahi. This is an unacceptable reality, one of bias and discrimination, where a child will not be accepted to a school because of the ancestry of his grandparents. This reality is not new, but in the past, there was nobody to turn toward, to speak to about this issue. I think that even if this issue is – to my relief – abating over time because of the constant effort of my fellow party-members, it must be completely erased.

MK Moshe Arbel (left) with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (right) (Courtesy)

Roy: What is your opinion about the new government, and about its Mizrahi representation?

MK Moshe Arbel: What Mizrahi representation do you see in this coalition? I am extremely concerned about so many other things in this government, that focusing on this [lack of Mizrahi representation] is akin to a starving man complaining that dessert was not sweet enough. There are such acute dangers in this government to the continuation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation that we cannot take time for this issue.

Roy: What dangers?

MK Moshe Arbel: The Prime Minister’s office contains a deputy minister from Ra’am, who has a budget of 53 billion shekels. Large parts of the Israeli populace are explicitly banned from the decision-making process. They act with a brutal violence using the legal process (in illegal manners), and have prevented the Opposition from submitting new bills. I would call these violent actions, which tear at the democratic foundations of the country. Let us not forget that Ra’am is the sister organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. I believe that the Arab populace clearly deserve to democratically vote and be elected to the Knesset if they are not terror-supporters (as some current members of the Knesset are), and I believe in free speech. However, including a terror-supporting party in the coalition with veto power is a danger to our safety. For example, the Citizenship Law is the very heart of Israel’s security as a Jewish, democratic state: many ‘couples’ entered civil marriages with the sole purpose of bringing more ‘Palestinians’ into Israel. An entire party from the governing coalition [Ra’am] voted against the Citizenship Law. Placing all these dangerous things on the table, Mizrahi representation is certainly important, but I am currently worried about Israel’s continued existence.

Roy: Why did your party vote against the extension of the temporary Citizenship Law?

MK Moshe Arbel: No, I oppose the existence of the current government, not the temporary law. Personally, as the former chief of staff of the Minister of the Interior [MK Aryeh Deri], I brought the extension of this law to the Knesset. This is an important law, but if I must decide between providing a safety net to this dangerous government or toppling it, I must do everything in my power for the good of the country, to topple this extremely dangerous government. In a democracy, this is what is expected of the Opposition. I also called upon my friend to turn this vote into a vote of no-confidence, and to see in a clear manner if the members of this evil coalition will give confidence to this government. The most existential danger is the existence of this government. Therefore, if I can provide momentum toward the dismantlement of this government, it is the right thing to do for the safety of Israel.

Roy: Does voting against this law not provide an even greater danger to the country in the form of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of Palestinians entering the country?

MK Moshe Arbel: Of course, this [the law not being approved] is dangerous, but that is not the relevant question. If we give this government a safety net, all future destructive actions it takes would be our fault, not only this law. A partner with veto power in this coalition outright opposes Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. In my eyes, the question is whether you are concerned with tactics or strategy. If you are concerned with tactics alone, you are right – I need to currently be involved only with the current bill up for vote. But a leader must be concerned with strategy, looking forward to the future: are we willing to surrender Israel’s key values for an extended period of time? Ultimately, true leadership is about strategy, not only the tactics of the moment. I certainly support equal rights and reducing [socioeconomic] gaps. I also know that [former] Minister Deri acted extremely strongly for the benefit of Israel’s Arab citizens. No person can think even for a moment that there is an inhumane or – God forbid – racist worldview at play. This is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs, this is a conflict about the identity of Israel and about the fact that there is a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office who received 53 billion shekel, and acts solely toward the purpose of destroying the state of Israel as a Jewish state. We are a nation which suffered the Holocaust less than a century ago. We are a nation whose Zionist dream has been a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Yes, a democratic country who aspires toward equal rights for all its citizens, but one that does not erase its identity, does not erase the fundamental reason for which it was founded: that any Jew, anywhere it the world, at any moment, whether in danger or not, will know that he has a national home in Israel. To my great sorrow, the current [government’s] actions strike at this core right, and for this reason they are dangerous.

Roy: Throughout the formation of this coalition, Prime Minister Bennett called upon the Haredi parties (Shas and UTJ) to join the coalition as a replacement for Ra’am and potentially also Meretz, Labour, or Lieberman [’s party, Yisrael Beitenu]. Was there ever a consideration to join this government?

MK Moshe Arbel: There was never such a consideration, for a simple reason: in a democratic state (such as Israel), we cannot erase and ignore such a large part of the public, even if they did not secure a majority of 61 [seats in the Knesset]. We cannot, because of the hatred of one man [PM Bennett] who has decided to ‘excommunicate’ former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decide to erase and spurn him because of ego. This is not a democratic process. A democratic process does not see Benjamin Netanyahu as Benjamin Netanyahu, it sees the number of mandates behind him and the number of citizens of Israel who on election day left their homes, entered the voting booth, and expressed their confidence in, whether through [voting for] the Likud or satellite parties which support him [Religious Zionism, Shas, and UTJ]. In a democratic process, going back on promises made to the voters is not a legitimate action in our eyes, a serious one (based solely on ego) which cannot be justified. Telling the truth in politics is mandatory. Unfortunately, it is rare, and many chose other options. However, fulfilling campaign promises is a great virtue, and something which should be done, even if it is not currently [politically] worthwhile.

Roy: Shas has previously sat both beneath the Likud and the Labour in coalitions. In previous years, Shas has shifted, whether toward the Right, toward the National Camp, or toward Netanyahu. Do you think this is due to the Left becoming more radical, or because Shas is becoming more right-wing?

MK Moshe Arbel: I think that Shas has always been a right-wing party. In the temporary action of sitting beneath [former Labour PM] Rabin, the goal was always leading Israel to the right, and dangerous left-wing actions suggested by Meretz which were canceled, were because of Shas. Aside, Meretz are not truly liberal – liberalism must strive toward freedom of religion at least as strongly as it strives toward freedom from religion, and unfortunately Meretz’s current leadership does not understand this. Observe [MK] Tamar Zandberg’s actions and proclamations against gender-separated bathing in hot springs. A true liberal would fight in favor of this, not against. Former MK Iman Khatib-Yasin from Ra’am asked her [Zandberg] to allow her, a religious Muslim woman, to have gender-separated bathing, and Zandberg was more embarrassed by this than by all the requests of Haredi MKs. Yet she still decided not to allow it. I think that MKs from Meretz used to be far more liberal. But at the end of the day, the majority of Israel’s public understands that there is no other option in the ongoing, daily fight against terrorism. Even if there used to be a pipe-dream of having a partner in peace on the other side, there is no partner, there is no one to speak with. The PA is very weak, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is very weak. Therefore, we need to come from a place of strength, and only through strength can we protect the only Jewish state in the world.

MK Moshe Arbel speaking at the Knesset (Courtesy)

Roy: You sat in previous coalitions with [MK Avigdor] Lieberman, but recently there have been accusations of incitement to violence on his part against the Haredi public. Would Shas be willing to sit with Lieberman again, should it be necessary in the formation of a government?

MK Moshe Arbel: Before asking us, you must ask him. He explicitly stated that he is placing a veto on permitting Haredi parties to enter the government. If we were a country in Europe, this would have already been called antisemitism. This is purely racism – the reason that he is boycotting us is not because of positions or ideology, but simply because we observe the Torah. We will not turn the other cheek.

Roy: As an individual and a leader, what does it mean to be Haredi, and what does it mean to be a Haredi party?

MK Moshe Arbel: First and foremost, it obligates many moral codes and values of the observation of the Torah. Not only in a religious manner, but also social. It means one must always be available: the Haredi community is particularly tightly knit. The Haredi public believe that their leaders are Superman, and that can solve any problem at any moment. The number of phone calls I receive from citizens at every hour of the day about every possible topic is incredible. I cannot solve everything, but the fact that they see me as some to turn to brings me great joy, and is also very obligating. The Haredi MKs are generally the most diligent, knowledgeable members of the Knesset, with extremely significant parliamentary knowledge and experience. As a parliamentary aide, I have observed the work of [former MK] Rabbi Gafni in the 19th Knesset in committees, which is a place that is not frequented by the media. I was stunned by his deep understanding, knowledge, and unity: the acceptance of the fact that we are a minority in Israel, even though we have been a part of many coalitions, and we need to fight for our rights as a minority. I personally submitted a request to the Supreme Court to approve an event in Afula where men and women are separated. Even though a regional judge already ruled that this event is illegal, I did not surrender, and I fought hard until we won, meriting that the public could enjoy what it deserves. This is a significant cross-section of the public, which unfortunately keeps losing rights because it has proportionally few lawyers and a low usage of legal mechanisms. It is beyond time to form an organization to protect the rights of the Haredi (and more broadly, religious) public in a legal manner. This conflict is about fundamental human rights. Haredi students need to study in caravans, where rain streams in during the winter and there is no air conditioning for the summer. This is a difficult reality. Thankfully, there are public servants who fight for these human rights, whether from the coalition, in which it is easier to affect change, or the opposition, where it is more difficult. But in a nation which honors human dignity, liberty, and rights, this should be the default.

Roy: Do you see a connection between your life as a Rabbi and your life as a public servant, as a member of the Knesset?

MK Moshe Arbel: Yes, absolutely, although I try very hard not to speak about (or even hint toward) political issues and only discuss matters of the Torah. Fundamentally, the role of the leader of a congregation, a rabbi, and a member of Knesset is to allow people to tell their stories and drive them to action. These are important tasks of any leader, and the ability to touch people’s hearts is crucial to these tasks. Personally, as I have observed, the most important changes are those which occur within a congregation or a household, not necessarily on the country scale. If you succeed to connect people or to resolve marital disputes, this can yield a change for generations, a more complex, adaptive, and important change in their lives than just another speech on stage.

Roy: As a final question, what is your vision for the state of Israel, and what steps do you suggest people take toward this dream?

MK Moshe Arbel: My vision is one wherein all minorities feel that they are represented, as a democratic state, whether the Haredi minority, the religious minority, or the Arab minority. Despite this, we need to actively defend our democracy, as the Supreme Court ruled in the past – sadly a ruling which was much more appropriate to the 1950s, as Supreme Court justices would never rule in such a manner these days. We need a democracy which will not allow those who wish to defile it to participate “in the name of democracy”.

         To conclude, I want to leave you with a story about Hashgacha Pratit [divine providence]. When I was in Harvard in December of 2019, two students sat with me at Hillel’s dining hall at Harvard. We ate dinner together and discussed – they were computer science students and were religious, wearing their tzitzit out. They told me that they were going to an NBA game, watching the Celtics in Boston, and it sounded interesting. I ordered tickets and went to the game, and by divine providence we were sitting in the same row, despite the fact that the stadium was packed to the brim, with over 20,000 people. Even in such a place, there were kosher hot dogs, and we could do Netilat Yadayim [ritual hand-washing before bread], demonstrating that it is possible to merge religious and secular lives in a special, beautiful manner.

Roy: Your honor, thank you so much for the interview.

About the Author
Roy is a Johns Hopkins graduate student in Applied Mathematics. Jewish Zionist and political enthusiast. He loves America and Israel, and is an active campus advocate for a moral, just society and the underprivileged.
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