Last Friday night, I had the privilege of meeting with religious Zionist journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir as part of an RZA Rabbinic mission. After her talk, I asked her opinion about the religious Zionist view of the current Israeli government. I asked her whether support for either Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or Religious Zionist head Bezalel Smotrich depended upon whether one was Dati Leumi or Charedi Leumi. Her response to me was, “It depends if you want to vote for a liar or not vote for a liar.”
That was a sharp response and more than I bargained for. I assumed that ideology played a role in the difference of opinion among religious Zionist voters, but Sivan thought it was all about ethics and if you are someone who cares about ethics, you obviously would not support Prime Minister Bennett. I found that response fascinating because in comparing the two religious Zionist leaders, from what I read in the media, I found Smotrich more problematic from an ethical standpoint. After all, he was someone who heckled Bennett during his acceptance speech and he engaged in ad hominem attacks against fellow colleague MK Nir Orbach, calling him an arrogant liar who only seeks honor for remaining loyal to Bennett. I viewed his verbal abuse to be unethical and not befitting a leader of a religious Zionist party.
Sivan explained to me that the heckling during Knesset sessions is very common. In fact, that’s what I witnessed when I visited the Knesset this past week during the opposition’s no-confidence vote. She also explained Smotrich’s personal attack was based on the fact that Bennett signed a letter a few days before the last election explicitly stating that he would not form a coalition with left-wing parties so Smotrich felt that Yamina explicitly betrayed the voters who voted for him. The response to that argument is that Bennett also made another promise, that he would make sure that there would not be another election, so he had to back out of one of his two promises. Additionally, politicians often back out of campaign promises.
I find it fascinating that what often shapes our ethics is our experience. We all have different experiences. For me, what has been on my mind this past year is the polarization and cancel culture and the fact that we can’t disagree without being disagreeable. Therefore, when I look at the ethics of the current government, I look at the potential to have a government that reflects so many different perspectives and ideologies and if it miraculously actually functions then its behavior can become a model for us all.
At the same time, I can understand how some people are so frustrated with politicians who blatantly lie regardless of whether everyone does it, and maybe that is why they vigorously oppose the Prime Minister.
When I visited Elon Moreh and spoke with Rav Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh Yeshiva, I asked him whether he thought that perhaps the current government, if it is successful, can be a model of unity for us all. I expected that being the head of such a right-wing Yeshiva with a very right-wing ideology, he would disagree with my suggestion, but he actually agreed with me. So we can have a debate about ethics that is a machloket l’shem shamayim, a debate for the sake of Heaven. I learned from this experience that it’s so important to have conversations and listen to other points of view and not to rush to draw conclusions from what we read in the media. Maybe there is another side to the story. Sivan Rahav-Meir is a serious, thoughtful person. Rav Elyakim Levanon also is a serious, thoughtful person. And I feel privileged to have had a meaningful conversation with both of them to help sharpen my thinking about ethics and morality.