Roy: MK Rothman, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Could you please briefly introduce yourself to the readers?
MK Simcha Rothman: Simcha Rothman, Member of Knesset from the Religious Zionist Party. Quite new as a Knesset Member – not like the Norwegian [Law enabled] Knesset members, but quite new. My background in the public sphere is that I founded the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy in 2012, and was the legal advisor for this organization. I promoted the discourse in Israel concerning the justice system: the problems with the justice system, with judicial activism, the lack of separation of powers and checks and balances between the courts and government. Recently, in 2019, my book was published – just today I received the proofreading copies of the English copies of my book, which in English will be called “Supreme Rulers: How Israel Became a Legalocracy”. That was the major issue I was involved with. Another issue in the public space that I was involved with is concerning the Settlement Regularization Law and the Young Settlements – both as an advocate and participant, as I live in Pnei Kedem, one of the new settlements in Gush Etzion — trying to legalize and get the Young Settlements government approval, electricity, water, and all the basic needs. I came to the Religious Zionist Party and joined Betzalel Smotrich to try to continue pushing these issues further and add more issues I am interested in promoting in the Knesset.
Roy: As a new Member of Knesset, what was the start of your political journey? How did you first become interested in politics?
MK Simcha Rothman: Dealing with the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy, a lot of the work was to get the issue passed through policymakers, through politicians. I have to say, as a new Knesset Member, I know about the work in the Knesset more than most Knesset Members, even people who have been here longer than me, since I worked a lot in the Knesset to promote legislation regarding the justice system. For example, a law that was passed in 2016 (I believe), that judges should file declarations of assets — believe it or not, every Knesset Member had to do it, every public official from a certain grade up had to do it, but judges, who by single decision can move billions of shekels from side to side, did not have to submit declarations of assets to the Comptroller — is a law that I wrote, and two Knesset Members (coalition and opposition) pushed together. I was involved in legislation and policymaking for many years, so it wasn’t a whole new experience for me to be in the Knesset. But of course, to do it from the side of the Knesset Member, it’s a different kind of work, connections with the media are different than they are when coming from an expert position [as opposed to an MK]. But for me, I continued to do the same work from a different position — it was more of a natural process, rather than out of the blue.
Roy: Is there anything that particularly surprised you when entering the Knesset?
MK Simcha Rothman: I was surprised by the political situation. I was surprised by my friends from Yamina. For many years I worked very closely with Ayelet Shaked — she came to the launch of my book. She, as a former Minister of Justice, and Amir Ohana, who was the Justice Minister, both spoke at my book launch, and I worked with both of them. The fact that members of Yamina, that I worked with for many years on the issues of governability and democracy, chose to abandon all the right wing issues (including the justice system issues) and go to have a different kind of government was a very big surprise, and not a pleasant one. Most of the other stuff I basically expected, I knew what I was getting into. The political situation — this kind of government — was a very big surprise.
Roy: Regarding Yamina and [MK] Betzalel Smotrich’s decision to break with them during this last election cycle, were there already indications about their intentions to sit with left-wing parties?
MK Simcha Rothman: As Betzalel said, the split happened because of that — I have to say that even before this, I advised Betzalel that things are going that way and he should split. He definitely knew what was going on, and we said it many times during the campaign, but we were attacked as ‘just telling stories’, nobody believed us. That is the tragedy: we said many times during the campaign that [now-PM] Naftali is going to go with the Left. I have to say, the surprise was that he went with Ra’am, with the anti-Zionist terror-supporting party of Ra’am, which he himself voted to disqualify from running ot the Knesset. If I had to bet, I would have said that if he had the chance, he would go with the Left, but I didn’t believe that he would go with Ra’am.
Roy: According to many sources from different parties, the Religious Zionist Party was the main one which prevented the formation of a ‘right-wing government’ supported by Ra’am.
MK Simcha Rothman: It is true that we were the leaders on those issues, but there were voices from within the Likud with the same ideology, who did not say it in public at the time this was a hot topic, but they definitely didn’t want it to happen. The Likud say — and from what I know it is not a lie — that the Likud never wanted to have this kind of government, and that the most they were trying to get from Ra’am is to form a ‘one-time government’, meaning to get a new government and immediately go to elections. I don’t think it is a good idea, and I think it creates all the problems just the same, but I think that today, even people that did not understand why we objected so much to Ra’am understand now. They see that once you are dependent on a party that doesn’t share the basic idea of Zionism, that once here doesn’t want a Jewish state, there is no limit to what they will demand from you, and no demand to the depths to which you will fall. The fact that [Minister of the Interior] Ayelet Shaked was willing to sign a deal for thousands of new families that will come as part of some ‘Palestinian Right of Return’, is nauseating.
Roy: Regarding the composition of the current government, there have been many claims that ‘dangerous parties’ are part of the government, including specifically Ra’am and Meretz, elements which have either never been a part of a coalition, or have not been members of the coalition in a long time. Could you discuss your position regarding the composition of this coalition?
MK Simcha Rothman: With the current government, we have three or four major problems. One problem of course, the biggest problem, is Ra’am. Ra’am is basically the sister movement of Hamas. We have inside the government, a party which has the same ideology of Hamas. You may say some of them are not as violent as Hamas, but you must remember that Hamas also has both a political wing and a military wing. Both are affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood, both have the same politics, and both share the same idea of how the Middle East should look — that Middle East should be under one Islamic rule, the Sharia Law. If you are willing to accept this kind of ideology inside your government, it means that Israel is basically no longer a Jewish state, because it’s not about how to run the Jewish state and push it forward. You have different vectors: one is pushing toward a Jewish state, and one is to destroy the state of Israel. That is a major problem, and has also long-term effects on the voting patterns within the Arab society in Israel, and has a lot for bad outcomes. The second problem is the extreme Left. This is an ideology that is shared by maybe 5% of the Jewish population in Israel, which not has control on major issues. It is an extremist view of both economic and geopolitical idea, and it is undemocratic: the only was in which Meretz or the Labour party can come to power is by taking votes from the Right and take it to the Left. This brings us to the third problem, which is lying to the public: especially Yamina, but also New Hope, who said they will not form a government with the Left. To do so, and to take away votes from the Right to the Left is voter fraud. It’s not voter fraud like changing the numbers, but it’s voter fraud in every other aspect. This is like me putting one ballot in the voting booth, and receiving something totally different. This is not an issue of changing circumstances: you knew exactly what you’re going to get, you promised very specifically what you are going to do, and you’re doing the exact opposite, which is ruining the democratic nature of elections. This is undemocratic in a very deep way. The fourth problem is that we have a Prime Minister who has six seats in the Knesset — five percent of the Knesset has a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is very weak — so we have a very weak so-called ‘right-wing’ person as Prime Minister — but he is in captivity and has Stockholm Syndrome: he cannot do anything by himself or order anything to be done, he needs cooperation and doesn’t have any power within his own government. So, we have a lack of democracy and we have a lack of governability, because he cannot do anything, he is not accountable, and anything you ask him to do he says “I can’t”.
Roy: Prime Minister Bennett has put forth a number of statements regarding the Iranian crisis about how he will act more in Israeli interests than [former Prime Minister] Netanyahu, but at the same time Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has put forth a declaration to the US that he will not act with the United States’ consent in different matters. How do you think this government will react regarding the Iranian crisis, with both sides being taken?
MK Simcha Rothman: I think we already see that in matters of foreign affairs, this government has zero power. Somehow, in a very surprising way, Israel became over the last few years a player in the geopolitical foreign-affairs game. Israel became a country that people asked them, look at them for solutions in the geopolitical arena, which is very surprising since we are very small, and while not so weak as we used to be, how can you compare Israel to European countries, or to Russia, or China, or the US. But that is exactly what happened — other countries were looking up to Israel to solve problems with Russia or with the US. Already this week, we heard that Russia started interfering with Israel’s actions in Syria, after they got some sort of green light from the US to do so. So in one month, we lost a strategic asset of geopolitical significance. Now we don’t have it, and we see the outcome: our hands will be tied in the Iranian issue, our hands are being tied as we speak in the Syrian area, and we will see more and more like that — it will start also in the Palestinian issues. We already see some hints that this will happen in the Palestinian area, and we also heard that the Biden administration said “let them pass the budget first, this government will not fall”. So, we have a government that maybe serves the interests of the US administration, but does not serve the interests of the Jewish people or of the state of Israel. We lost a major asset: maybe this asset is Benjamin Netanyahu, maybe this asset is Benjamin Netanyahu’s work, but it doesn’t matter, we lost it just the same.
Roy: In many ways, the current government in the United States is more difficult to handle than the previous one, but as a rule, how should Israel be acting regarding foreign policy specifically to the United States?
MK Simcha Rothman: Israel needs to lead an independent line. It is very hard to do so, it needs a lot of power: personal power, political power, financial power, military power. However, if Israel acts based on its own interests, and does so with respect to the US but not with surrender, then I think the US will respect it. Countries that act based on their own interests and have the power to stand behind it receive other countries’ respect. Diplomacy is a very difficult field to be in, particularly when you are working for the state of Israel, but I think that predators recognize and respond to weakness, so Israel should never be weak.
Roy: Israel’s new President, Isaac Herzog, was strongly connected to Diaspora Jewry in his previous role [as chairman of the Jewish Agency]. His policy has continued into the current government, where there are many difficulties facing immigrants, particularly for religious individuals. How do you see this issue?
MK Simcha Rothman: I don’t see Herzog’s election as a victory for the Left. He received 87 votes from the Knesset, both from the Left and Right. Particularly in the Religious Zionist Party, I gave his name as my candidate — of course the vote was secret and the vote was according to party lines, and our party openly voted for Miriam Peretz. I think he was a very good candidate, and I hope he will be a very good President. I appreciate him a lot for the work he has done in the Agency. About Aliyah, Diaspora Jews, and American Jews, I took it upon myself to help those issues for many reasons. First, it relates to my personal background – my family made Aliyah from the US not so long ago, in 1910 (111 years ago). Just imagine how it was to come from the US to Israel in 1910; I believe it became easier over the years. Also, my wife’s family made Aliyah; her parents are from Chicago. My wife is an English speaker, and all my children are American citizens, so I know the kinds of challenges Aliyah brings to the table and I am open to help. Already, I have many people asking me to help with certain issues of getting to Israel, bureaucracy, etc. It is taking a lot of adjustment, and I think the main problem is that the State of Israel focuses a lot off the budget and mind on the absorption of the Russian Diaspora, Russia and former USSR countries, which is strange since most of the people who come today through the Law of Return from those countries are non-Jewish. They are non-Jewish not only due to Halacha, but due to their own self-determination. We as a party asked to change that, and are hoping we will be able to change that. We need to focus efforts of the Office of Immigration Absorption not only on those Aliyot (from America, England, France, Australia, South Africa) but also to try to get as much help as possible to people trying to make it in Israel. Currently I am working on an issue that concerns many people who made Aliyah from the US — double Social Security — and I hope we will have good news, as I am working on it almost from day one. I also work on many other ‘small issues’ — but there are no small issues, as every problem you see, you can see the outcome in numbers, such as if people think about it when they make Aliyah and ask how they are going to make it living in Israel. All the small bureaucracy issues impact the number of immigrants we receive from the US ad other English-speaking countries. I think this will be the next challenge, since when we worked on the Citizenship Law, I was amazed to understand that even with the other law in effect, the growth in the Arab sector in Israel due to immigration is almost the same as in the Jewish population due to immigration and Aliyah. We have the Law of Return, and we don’t have a Law of Return for Arabs, but the outcome is just the same: we are not having enough immigrants come to Israel. We have to compete, and we have to make Israel a good place for immigrants to come. This is connected to education issues, to high taxes, to everything; we need to work to get the people from the US, from England, from Australia to come to Israel, to make a living here, and to bring their families and friends.
Roy: In particular, a prime reason for certain sources of immigration being more prominent in recent years is global antisemitism. This is starting to take the form of ‘anti-Zionism’ to defend the perpetrators from critics, and it is becoming very difficult outside of Israel to be an advocate for Israel and a defender of Israel and its policies. Do you have any recommendations for global Zionists regarding how to treat the global order and what is occurring around the Israel dialogue?
MK Simcha Rothman: Many times, you see people going to defend Israel taking an apologetic point of view, saying “oh, we are not agreeing with this, this, and this, but we have to agree that Israel has a right to defend itself” or “Israel has a right to exist” or “the Jews have a right to their own homeland”, all of which are true, but are not very arguments in defense of so-called ‘immoral actions’. This apologetic sort of discourse does not help. I think you need to call out the antisemitism in the criticism; to show that they have double standards always works. You can say “Are you against selling your ice cream to an occupied territory? What did Ben and Jerry’s do to prevent the sale of ice cream in Morocco? In Turkey? In China? Or are you just picking on Israel because you are an antisemite?”. You need to go on the attack, certainly not on the defense. Many, many times, the criticism of Israel is based on just plain lies — we all see that. We all see pictures that never happened, or that happened in other places around the world and are used against Israel. Know your facts and attack — this is a very useful method to defend Israel, and certainly the best defense is an attack sometimes. What Israel deals with and what Jews around the world deal with is certainly an attack: an attack on the idea of a Jewish people, on the idea of a homeland for the Jews. Once you call this out for the antisemitism it is, you get to better places than when you are apologetic. Also, you must remember that Jews are not ‘colonialists coming to the Orient’: Jews are the indigenous peoples of Israel. Everyone needs to understand that criticizing Israel from some university on the West Coast is actually criticizing the indigenous people of Israel coming to the State of Israel, which they do only because they don’t accept the notion of a Jewish people, of a Jewish nation. I think this is something to work on.
Roy: Is there anything else you would like to say to American, to the readers, or to Diaspora Jewry as a whole?
MK Simcha Rothman: Come visit, and then decide to stay!
Roy: Wonderful! Thank you so much for your time, MK Rothman.
MK Simcha Rothman: Thank you, thank you very much!