Samuel Lebens

Talking to the Floating Voter

Yair Lapid. By Haim Zach / Government Press Office.
Yair Lapid. By Haim Zach / Government Press Office.
This post started off on my Facebook wall, but it attracted so much attention that somebody suggested I make it into an article for the Times of Israel blog. The post was my analysis of the choices that face voters, like me, in Israel. I’m doubtful that there all that many floating voters in this country. People seem to have very strong opinions. But I hope that people will hear what I have to say with an open mind.
I don’t want my political post to be all about who I’m not voting for. There are elections in which I’ve had to vote for what I take to be the least bad candidate, and my arguments were largely negative. That’s a sad situation to be in. Thankfully, that’s not the situation we’re in this time. There is a party leader who has, to my mind, done enough to prove that he’s truly worthy of the office of Prime Minister. But if I’m to sway a floating voter or two, I think I can’t avoid addressing the elephant in the room: Bibi.
I can’t pretend that I’ve ever liked him. But there’s no denying that, in the past, he secured certain goods for the State of Israel, by dint of his political skills, his vision, and his intelligence. And yet, over the course of his career, he has slowly evolved from a staunch advocate of liberal democracy into what I take to be a real and present threat to the very institutions that sustain that democracy.
All of the evidence suggests that he was desperate to include Raam in a coalition after the last election, and yet his entire election campaign this time has been about the threat of Lapid including Raam in a coalition. His supporters point to Lapid’s theoretical support for a two-state solution to suggest that Lapid is some sort of a threat to Israeli security; conveniently neglecting to mention that Bibi has made the same theoretical commitment to the same solution in the same forums as Lapid. In a previous election Netanyahu literally bemoaned the fact that Israeli Arabs were enacting their legal right to vote, and the next election, he cynically sought to court their vote. The lack of principle here is astonishing in its transparency.
Netanyahu will seemingly do anything it takes to serve the only principle he seems still to have: stay in power. I used to think that there was a kernel of sincerity in the man, on the basis that he was beholden to some sort of Messiah complex, according to which only he could protect Israel from the destructive forces of the Iranian regime; that this sincerely held belief of his justified, in his mind, his doing whatever it takes to stay in power. But now the truth is clear. His primary motivation, in all that he’s doing, is to stay out of jail.
I must admit that the crimes of which he’s accused are not, in my eyes, tremendously egregious. He is not accused of taking big brown envelopes full of money, as in past cases of political corruption. And yet we must note two things: first, if you are responsible for making the law, then you must be held responsible for breaking it, even if you don’t think that the infringement was egregious. Second, the conduct of Bibi and his supporters in trying to keep him out of jail has been much worse and much more dangerous than the crimes of which he’s been indited.
Reliable reports have told us that in the previous round of coalition negotiations, one of his key demands was legislation that would retroactively get him out of legal jeopardy. One of his key potential coalition partners in the current election has explicitly promised to do just that. What sort of precedent does it set if people under indictment can simply run for election in order to change the law so as to get them out of trouble? What do the institutions of a liberal democracy become if they can be used as the personal playthings of the powerful, made to bend to their will whenever trouble lies on their personal horizon?
You can’t just tweak the institutions of a state – its judiciary, its police force, its laws – for personal gain. As my Rabbi, the late Lord Jonathan Sacks, put it: “Undermining a nation’s institutions is playing with fire, as those who do so discover, always too late.”
Given the brazen lack of principle, the hollow self-service, the narcissism, and the corruption, how can it be that so much of Israel is under his spell? Do they not see through him? We have just left the holy month of Tishrei. In our prayers, we said: “our father our king, we have no king but you.” The prophet Mica describes the remnant of Jacob, “that doesn’t look to any person, or place its hope in mortal man.” And yet the political platform of Israel’s largest political party has been reduced to two words: Raq Bibi; just Bibi; as if to say, “don’t worry God, we have a king after all.” Is this what we’ve become?

But for me, the most important reason for speaking out, and for speaking first about who I won’t vote for, is the great desecration of God’s name emerging from my own community – the community of religious Zionists. What we have seen in recent years is the emergence of Kahanism into the mainstream of my own community. Meir Kahana was a powerful writer and orator. But let’s be under no illusions. He was a gangster and a terrorist.

In the early days, he made his living as an FBI informant. He cheated on his wife with a woman who he also mistreated, and she committed suicide. In his campaign for Soviet Jewry (a valid cause if ever there was one), he and his mob planted a bomb in the offices of a Jewish ballet promoter that killed the Jewish secretary working there, and injuring others. When he used to speak in the Israeli parliament, before he was banned from holding a seat, Yitzchak Shamir, the Likud prime minister, would walk out of the room. The old right, whatever political disagreements I may have had with them, had principles: they stood against fascism and terror. They stood for the principles of liberal democracy. The new right wants to get into bed with the ideological heirs of this terrorist, as long as it keeps Bibi out of jail.

Ben Gvir used to hang a picture in his house of the despicable mass-murderer, Baruch Goldstein. Many fascists, upon seeking election, try to clean up their act. The picture no longer hangs in his dinning room. But there is no credible evidence that he’s changed. He remains a race-bating rabble rouser. Smotritch is less of a thug, but no more of a mensch. He has apologised for comparing the LGBTQ community to beasts, but what sort of apology is it when he still proudly calls himself a homophobe? His opposition to the LGBTQ isn’t halakhic. It is hatred. What sort of person justifies anti-Arab price-tag violence – which has killed men, women, and children, and damaged people’s homes, farms, and properties – as simply violent action undertaken in the framework of a war against enemies?

Religious people must speak up. Smotritch and Ben Gvir are Jewish supremacists, but Jewish supremacism is toxic to the Torah itself. Theirs is not Jewish pride. Theirs is Jewish arrogance. But, as Rabbi Sacks said, “Pride means valuing others because you value yourself. Arrogance means devaluing others so that you can have a high opinion of yourself. National arrogance is unforgivable. National pride is essential.”

Smotritch and Ben Gvir don’t believe that we are the chosen people. Not really. Instead, they believe in Jewish supremacism. Chosenness is a holy idea. Supremacism, by contrast, is a racist perversion of that idea. To quote Rabbi Sacks once more:
A chosen people feels called to serve; a master race [by contrast, feels called] to dominate. The characteristic emotion of a chosen people is humility; the virtue of a master race is [arrogance], in Latin superbia. A master race sees victory in terms of its own merits; a chosen people attributes it to God or providence or history, not itself. A master race sees defeat as humiliation; a chosen people sees it as a call to repentance. A master race commemorates its victories in monumental architecture and ceremonial inscriptions. A chosen people does the opposite; it records its defeats and shortcomings. There is no more self-critical literature than the Hebrew Bible – an ongoing story of failures, backslidings, and derelictions of duty.
Where is the self-criticism of a Smotritch or Ben Gvir? Where is their humility? Where is their dedication to the service of people beyond their own community; which is the sine qua non of choseness?
It is a personal embarrassment and a source of deep shame to me that these men should be viewed by the wider Israeli public as the unofficial spokespeople for the community of religious Zionists. Every outwardly observant religious Jew, who stands for the Torah of a Rabbi Sacks instead of the hate speech and propaganda of a Meir Kahane, has to communicate their disapproval. Our community needs to do a great deal of soul searching.
There’s no doubt that Israel exists in a difficult neighbourhood. Even the most peace-loving and moderate Arabs tend to view us Jews as a foreign implant. Until we both recognise the story of the other, and the belonging of the other, in this land, true peace will be elusive. Moreover, the leadership of the Palestinian people, and the popular politics of the Palestinian street, tend towards extremism, violent anti-Semitism, and the complete rejection of Israel.
Even my most politically radical Palestinian students tend to concede to me, in conversation, that if Israel unilaterally put down all of its weapons, and dismantled, overnight, the infrastructure of occupation, there would be a blood bath in the morning, as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad invade and slaughter the Jewish population of Israel. They may blame Israel for the rise of Palestinian extremism, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact that this extremism exists presents a real and present danger to the lives of Israelis every single day. So, I’m not saying that there are easy solutions here, or that we have a warm and cuddly partner for peace, or anything of the sort. But I am saying that we cannot allow the conflict, and the need for iron-clad security, to allow us to dehumanise the other; and we cannot allow it to pollute our values.
Ben Gvir would like to transfer as many Arabs as he can from their homes to other lands. I would say that, on the contrary, after 2000 years of exile, and being minorities in the land of others, one of the challenges that we should take most seriously, as Jews, is how we can strive to become a welcome home to minorities in our midst; notwithstanding the real obstacles in the way of promoting and realising that integration.
There is a fight taking place for the heart and soul of Judaism, and it falls upon religious Jews, in this time and place, to stand publicly against those who pollute the waters of our democracy, and pervert the ideals of the Torah.
But having spoken about who I’m not voting for, it’s crucial to point out that, for once, we really do have someone for whom we can feel confident voting. My argument isn’t all negative. It has a positive conclusion.
When Yair Lapid started out in politics, I was dubious. The fact that he was a media personality, with slick presentation, led me to fear that he was just another self-publicist seeking to create a cult of personality around him. My suspicions started to subside when I saw that he consistently surrounded himself with excellent people – from the candidates he selected to populate his party list, to the advisers he employed. And yet, a handpicked list, rather than a proper democratic party with primaries was, to my mind, a cause for concern.
Yair Lapid. By Haim Zach / Government Press Office.

But we now have much more evidence to inform our judgements, and it is absolutely clear to me now that my suspicions were ill founded. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, has become a real and viable movement backed by a vibrant community of volunteers, and Lapid has made it clear that the party will be moving towards a primary system now that its identity has been forged in the furnace of multiple elections. Moreover, we have seen absolutely astonishing, and consistently selfless, leadership from Lapid himself. You don’t go into politics if you’re not ambitious and possessed of a degree of self-confidence. But time and time again, Lapid has put his own prime ministerial ambitions on hold for what he takes to be the greater good of the country. He has shown himself consistently to be one of the few adults in the room.

More than 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arabs – Druze, Muslims, Bedouins, and Christians. Whatever those different groups may think of us, and whatever the obstacles that lay ahead of us, we have to work towards building a new paradigm in which all of those citizens start to feel that they really belong in this country and that the government has their best interests at heart. This is, I believe, the least that the Torah, and our sense of justice, expects of us. But it’s also good politics. We’re talking about a massive section of the economy who’s full potential hasn’t been tapped. Bennet and Lapid’s government was the first government in my lifetime to take these issues seriously rather than to pay them lip-service. This is an effort that must continue and only Lapid can be trusted to take it further.
Lapid isn’t perfect. Nobody is. But the fact that he doesn’t claim to be perfect, and the fact that he is always willing to put country before personal gain, is what – to my mind – makes him most suitable to lead. My claims about his personal integrity have been tested time and again. I’m left in no doubt. It is clear to me that, from his holocaust surviving father, he inherited a deep sense of Jewish history, and of our historic vulnerability, which leads him to be uncompromising about security, and clear eyed about the risks that face the only safe haven we Jews have on earth. But it’s equally clear to me that he didn’t inherit his father’s disregard for religion. On the contrary, Lapid is deeply respectful of religiosity. In my only personal meeting with him, his kindness and respect was directed primarily towards the fact that I’m a Rabbi. This was manifest in his relationship with Rabbi Sacks, and his positive attitude towards the Rabbis of the Tzohar organisation. Moreover, I share his opposition to religious coercion; an opposition, whose foundations in the Torah itself, I learnt from the writing of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
Lapid is proud to be a Jew. He recognises the centrality of the Torah and Rabbinic literature in forming our identity, even if he may disagree with the practical conclusions that Orthodox Jewry derive from that literature. He does so with great respect and with reverence. Moreover, as a man of principle, he can be trusted to fight to protect our religious freedoms.
My personal ideology happens to lean to the left. Indeed, I could, and have, voted for parties to the left of Yesh Atid. But there is no leader with a chance of building a coalition who I trust more than Lapid to do so with his eye firmly on the common good. In some contexts, centrism is wishy-washy and collapses into conservativism by nature. In Israel, we are so divided into extremes, that centrism is brave and radical.

Moreover, I honestly believe that the situation in which we find ourselves is such that people pretty far to my right should be casting exactly the same vote. Lapid is a centrist. He will not consent to a government that is skewed towards one or other ideological extreme. We know from experience that Lapid will seek to lead a government that is skewed towards compromise in the name of the common good. And like the right wingers who, in the days of Yitzchak Shamir, would leave the room when Kahane spoke, people on the right today should know: there’s no excuse for casting a vote that would empower proto-fascists and put Smotrich and Ben Gvir in government.

We know from history that fascism rarely comes to power through the front door. They win a few seats here and few seats there, and the risk that they pose tends to be belittled until it’s too late. Classically, they will use the small amount of power that they can win democratically as a platform from which to grab the rest by force, and to pull down all of the institutions that safe-guard a liberal democracy. Whether you are on the left or the right, you must always be vigilant against this risk – however far-fetched it may sound. Lapid is therefore the only candidate to lead us through these divided times.
All Rabbi Sacks quotes are from his book, The Home We Build Together.
About the Author
Samuel Lebens is a Rabbi and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. He has written books and articles on Jewish and secular philosophy covering a broad range of themes from the work of Bertrand Russell to the thought of the Hassidic masters. Visit his website at