Election Day in Israel: The Pleasant and the Perplexing

Election Day here in Israel is a legal holiday, which might be a good idea. Because people are in a better mood, the tension and charged atmosphere of intense campaigning is dissipated somewhat by an upbeat atmosphere. At least it was in my neighborhood.

I’ve been told that there is a law here similar to that in the US that bans electioneering close to polling stations. If there is, there must be some confusion about whether the proscribed distance is either two centimeters or three centimeters. Maybe that’s why it is not enforced. To enter the local polling place, you had to run a gauntlet of competing booths, tables, and volunteers. Some of them threw in loud music for good measure. The good news is that all the competing workers were getting along fine with each other, which is better than at US events – or even Congress. It all felt like a county fair.

The run-up to the elections was not all that pleasant to behold. I live in an ideologically mixed neighborhood, so I was spared the worst. In the more charedi enclaves, tensions can run pretty high. As usual, charedim find it impossible to translate their burgeoning numbers into seats in Knesset or on city councils, largely because the different factions (chassidish, yeshivish, Sefardic) deeply mistrust each other and cut-throatedly compete with each other for whatever is in the pork barrel. Therefore, they work at cross-purposes to each other and dilute their effectiveness. The entrenched political workers don’t really speak to the electorate in terms of what their representatives can offer. Instead, they speak of the obligation of the electorate to support them. Someone I know was told by a local charedi political hack, “You have a right by law to cast a ballot – but not to exercise any choice. We tell you for whom to vote.” (Even outside the observant community, I saw virtually no mention of issues. Every candidate had meaningless, boiler-plate slogans attached to his advertising. What was conveyed was a name – and his party affiliation, as if nothing else had to be said.)

This can get comical. One parent found that his child had come home from school with two almost-identical handouts. Each one spoke of how gedolei Torah emphasized that it was a halachic responsibility to vote for candidate X. Voting for the opponent was assur. One who does so is called a poresh min ha-tzibbur/ one who turns a deaf ear to the needs of the community and distances himself from it. What made this interesting (if not a bit pathetic) was that the two handouts backed two competing candidates. (While my wife voted as a new oleh, my status didn’t allow me to. Had I had the opportunity, as an inveterate contrarian, I probably would have filled in Harold Stassen as a write-in.)

For some honors, there is no room for doubt or for choice. The weekly award for sheer irresponsibility goes to a writer for Mekor Rishon, ostensibly an Orthodox publication here. He managed to get Chief Rabbi Lau to sit for an interview about the Pittsburgh Massacre. He questioned Rabbi Lau about coverage in the Israeli charedi press, which did not refer to (non-Orthodox) Tree of Life as a synagogue or temple, but found some non-religious substitution like “community center.”

To his credit, Rabbi Lau handled the question very well. He was aghast that the denominational issue was even a topic of conversation. Jews at worship had been slaughtered because they were Jewish. Was anything else important?

Rather than let the matter go at that, the reporter insisted on going for a journalistic kill, and insisted on getting R. Lau to commit himself as to whether he would call it a synagogue or not. His answer was interpreted by some as a dodge, even though he explicitly did call Tree of Life a synagogue. But the haters at Haaretz ran with the story, and soon the story was in the public domain, beginning with the New York Times.

I won’t mention the name of the original reporter, just in case I’ve somehow missed something. But if it is what it looks like it is, the reporter is either irresponsible, uncaring, ego-driven, intellectually-challenged, or all the above.

Runners-up in the competition are whatever charedi outlets (assuming they exist) that decided to substitute something for “Temple” or “Congregation.” Do they still not realize that people are monitoring every paragraph they write, and they that their capacity to generate chilul Hashem is immeasurable? Do they not care? Can they be so obtuse as to think they are doing HKBH a favor by heaping contempt upon the non-Orthodox, especially at a time like this? (I have not checked to see if such outlets exist in fact, or were fabricated by Mekor Rishon. I did notice that Kikar Shabbat, an important charedi website, unmistakably called Tree of Life a beit knesset.)

One hero(ine) emerged. Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, the Life/Features Editor at the Forward, set the record straight. A frum woman, she risked the ire of he paper’s leadership by calling out those who distorted the story, including by implication a colleague at the same paper. Her piece, “Israel Chief Rabbi Didn’t Dismiss Progressive Synagogues. Stop Twisting Words to Sow Division” includes a transcript of the original interview, so our readers can go there and see for themselves what R. Lau did and did not say, and take note of the huge distortion by those who want to undo the Rabbinate in Israel – and worse.

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12 Responses

  1. Dr. Bill says:

    Perhaps the discord is a blessing from God; otherwise the general populace would also unify to end non-democratic behavior and extortion

  2. Natan Slifkin says:

    “Someone I know was told by a local charedi political hack, “You have a right by law to cast a ballot – but not to exercise any choice. We tell you for whom to vote.”
    It’s not just political hacks who says this. HaModia, five years ago, published the following from Rav Elimelech Kornfeld, rav of a large Anglo-charedi shul in RBS: “Olim coming from the United State often have a preconceived notion that one’s personal decision of who to vote for is his basic democratic right and that nobody has the right to dictate his vote. They are not always aware that here in Eretz Yisrael serious religious issues are on the line and the decision of who we vote for is made by the Rabbanim and Gedolim, who are most aware of the pressing religious needs.””

  3. Moshe Friedler says:

    When my son who’s currently learning in Yerushalayim described the whole election scene to me, I could only think, “adult color war”.

  4. Raymond says:

    When I first heard about the massacre at that Pittsburgh synagogue, my immediate reaction was, “Oh no, not again!” And then for the next several days, my thoughts were basically divided between the need for us Jews to arm ourselves, and the eternal mystery as to why the world hates us Jews to such a strong level of intensity. After all, aren’t we such good, decent people who have contributed so much that is good in the world? How can anybody hate us?

    In other words, my thoughts on the subject had been within normal bounds, and quite expected from somebody like me. However, in light of the pressure put on Rabbi Lau, I was subsequently reminded of an entirely different, and I must say very disturbing line of thought. The thinking goes something along the following lines: Jewish survival is a miracle, perhaps the strongest evidence of all for the Existence of G-d. After all, all other nations that have faced even a fraction of the cruelty inflicted on our Jewish people, have long ago perished. Only we Jews survive…in fact, not only survive, but continue to thrive. Trying to explain such survival by saying that we are simply good at surviving, is plainly absurd, since presumably all nations wish to survive, yet so many have not. Clearly our survival is of a supernatural order.

    However, that survival only continues as long as we continue to follow G-d’s Word. As soon as we give all that up in order to live our lives like all the other nations, then our fate, too, becomes like all the other nations. And here is where it gets really troublesome. See, there are those who say that this explains the Holocaust. German Jews of the time were famous for declaring that Berlin was the new Jerusalem. When the nazis (yemach sh’mo) rounded up our fellow Jews to be slaughtered like sheep, the German Jews could not understand it. After all, they had for generations identified themselves as Germans, having long ago abandoned their last traces of Jewishness. Well, once that is the case, then Jews are no longer carried on the wings of G-d’s Eagles, so to speak, and so they follow the way of all other nations, running a natural course of their collective lives, and ultimately disappearing from history.

    Well, so, if such thinking is part of traditional, Orthodox Jewish thought when it comes to something so evil on a massive scale like the Holocaust, then so must be what happened in Pittsburgh. The house of worship where that massacre occurred, is not an Orthodox one. They have long ago abandoned traditional Jewish teachings, and so at that point, they, too, are no longer protected by G-d, and must succumb to the same laws of nature as any non-Jewish nation on Earth.

    I am not saying that I agree with this line of thought, or maybe I am just not ready to emotionally. Frankly, it sounds cruel to me….and yet, I find myself unable to dismiss it out of hand. See, too often in my life, when Orthodox Jewish teachings at first appear to me to be either absurd, far fetched, irrelevant, or cruel, it has only been my own short sightedness that has made me think that. Countless times, sometimes taking me years to realize it, I have come around to realize that Orthodox Jews are right about most, perhaps even all things. And so I am not willing to dismiss the above line of thought. and yet…and yet….while those Jews in Pittsburgh may have not followed the Code of Jewish Law in any precise manner, they did still strongly identify as Jews, and maybe they did the best they could considering what level of knowledge of Judaism they had. Maybe they are like kidnapped children who simply did not know better. And so for this they deserve death? A 97-year old Holocaust survivor deserves death? Aren’t we taught that what G-d wants from us most of all is our Jewish hearts?

    And so I find myself in a kind of gray area, not knowing the proper reaction to what happened. Perhaps it is too early for me to arrive at any conclusion. Perhaps my mind is too limited to ever arrive at any proper conclusion. Perhaps all that can be expected of me is to think deeply of these very serious and profound matters, and share my thoughts with others, to see what they think about all this.

  5. Yossi says:

    I think it’s important to keep a few things clear about the Pittsburgh Massacre.
    There is humanism and compassion, there is halacha, and there is PR.

    From a humanistic perspective, they were slaughtered and we must be the most compassionate. Now is not the time to say anything that may hurt people; we must be the most sensitive and compassionate to their slaughter.

    From a halacha perspective, they died al kiddush Hashem. Conservative temples have a different standing in Halacha, so ordinarily most people call them Temples, which isn’t deemed offensive because that is what they themselves call them.

    But then there is PR. Bad PR at a time like this is a huge chilul Hashem, so we have to be careful that whatever we call it, besides risking being cruel and insensitive to people who lost their loved ones and have no reason to understands these distinctions, we will also appear that way to the entire world.

  6. Reb Yid says:

    Most Conservative houses of worship are called synagogues or shuls. There are a few which are called temples, but most of them are within the Reform movement.

    The reason hearkens back to classical Reform (long since having ceased to play a meaningful role in that movement)….where Cincinnati (or Cleveland or Pittsburgh) was considered their Jerusalem and their house of worship considered to be their Temple. Indeed, a few Reform congregations still call themselves The Temple.

  7. Nachum says:

    It sounds like you’re not even going to consider Berkovitch, which is a shame.

  8. mycroft says:

    ” I probably would have filled in Harold Stassen as a write-in”
    You and I probably first knew of him in the 60s as a perennial candidate for President. Treated almost as a joke,only later did I learn he had a very distinguished early career,youngest governor in Minnesota history, President of University of Pennsylvania, my mother AH used to tell me about the Dewey Stassen debate in 1948 .
    A Mussar in our youth we never know how our life will turnout. I’m others can have better drashot

  9. Sue says:

    Thank you R. Slifkin for clarifying that this quotation is not from a political hack with an axe to grind, but is an important Torah directive expressed by a Rav. As is often raised in pieces and comments on Cross Currents, living in Eretz Hakodesh entails the obligation to place many more parts of our daily life under the aegis of Torah than is the case in chutz la’aretz.
    But the reward – the fulfilling of the mitzvah of “ve’asita et kol asher yorucha” is obviously worth the effort!

  10. Weaver says:

    The Arizal says that the “treasure” that the Jews brought out from Mitzrayim refers to Egyptian experts to help the Jews build a well-functioning civilization. Apparently, we still have a lot to learn . . .
    (This comment is pretty fascinating, especially if you are a yeridas hadoros absolutist. It sounds almost academic.)

  11. DF says:

    I do not know Avital Chizik Goldschmidt – I presume RYA does – but I know this: One cannot credibly call oneself a “frum Jew” and work for the Forward as an editor. (As opposed to a mere contrary-point columnist, a token position that enables otherwise monolithic papers to claim diversity of opinion.) Can someone be a liberal, as that term is commonly understood, and be a feature writer for the National Catholic Register?? It makes about as much sense as an orthodox Jewish woman being an editor of the Forward. And it makes no difference how she chooses to label herself, either. Indeed, it is quite common for Jewish journalists today to call themselves “orthodox” as a way to distinguish themselves, and give themselves the veneer of Jewish knowledge and authenticity.) She is either a) *not* a frum woman, b) *not* and editor for the Forward, or c) *will* not soon be working for them.

    • It appears that this will have to join the list of things that people


      could not be true, but were true nonetheless! Avital is most decidedly frum (and married to a Ponovitcher), and definitely an editor at the Forward. Stranger things have happened in life. As far as the prediction in c), my crystal ball’s batteries gave out, so I am not prognosticating about this one.

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