Breaking Israel News: The Rabbi and the Ideologue: A Powerful Political Combination
Last week, an unlikely alliance was formed in Israeli politics: a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi joined forces with a right-wing party in order to advance his pre-Messiah mission of returning the lost remnants of Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Amsalem announced last week that he was running for the Knesset in the April elections as part of the Zehut party. He is no stranger to Israeli politics but his past makes his decision all the more surprising since Rabbi Amsalem was one of the founders of Shas, the Sephardi-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party. Zehut is not Haredi but is closer to his current project. Rabbi Amsalem left the party due to an ideological belief that has become his life’s work. A recognized Torah scholar, he wrote Zera Yisrael (The Seed of Israel) in which he advocated a different approach to dealing with the huge phenomenon of people with Jewish ancestry.
To further this, Rabbi Amsalem helped establish the organization Zera Israel with the stated goal of “reaching out to the millions of ‘People from the Seed of Israel’ around the world, bring them closer to Judaism and the State of Israel, in a welcoming and approachable manner, while preserving the Halachic (Torah law) rules.” Zera Israel supports and invests in Jewish communities across the globe while focusing on tightening their bond with the Land of Israel.
In cases of conversion, he advocates for taking a significantly lenient position when a person is descended from Jews. In the case of one IDF soldier, Rabbi Amsalem considered the army service itself to be the ‘acceptance of the mitzvot,’ a key component in the conversion process. He has been widely criticized in the ultra-Orthodox press for this decision.
Last week, Rabbi Amsalem announced that he was joining Zehut, a right-wing political party that is often described as the Israeli version of the Libertarians.
“My initial motivation was to join with the man; not the party,” Rabbi Amsalem told Breaking Israel News. The head of Zehut, Moshe Feiglin, seems like an unlikely match but Rabbi Amsalem emphasized that in the issues that mattered the most, he had found both a home and a partner. “Moshe is straightforward and honest. He has enormous integrity. That is essential but, unfortunately, rare in politics. I needed to know that I was dealing with someone that even when I didn’t agree with him, I could trust that he would keep his word.”
“For several years, the majority of my efforts have been dealing with Jewish identity,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “So it was only fitting that the place I chose to continue these efforts would be within the Zehut Party, who, as the name implies, is deeply concerned with this as well. The party really does strive to strengthen Jewish identity.”
Zehut’s platform calls to abolish the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services in Israel and allow people to choose who would provide those services.
“My first conversations with Feiglin were about this subject, about my work. I am intensely concerned about the people who have Jewish ancestry and reconnecting them with the Jewish people. This is also an aspect of Jewish assimilation. When Feiglin heard this, he came to the conclusion that we had common interests and that we should work together.”
Rabbi Amsalem maintained that his desire to reunite those of Jewish ancestry with Israel has enormous political ramifications that could benefit Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. He explained that the left-wing has advocated a two-state solution.
“The left-wing is not motivated by a love of the Palestinian people,” Rabbi Amsalem emphasized. “The main reason the Israeli left-wing supports the two-state solution is because they believe there is a demographic threat; that the Palestinians will one day be so numerous as to constitute a real threat to the Jewish state. My answer to them is that there are millions of people in the word with Jewish ancestry that are longing to reconnect to the Jewish people. We can fill Israel with these people and that will solve the problem in the best possible manner.”
The rabbi noted that this already happened with the aliyah from the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s more than 1.6 million Jews made aliyah, drastically changing the demographics of Israel.
“I believe that in the end, connecting with the lost seed of Israel is politically advantageous but the main motivation for doing so is not just political expediency,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “It is my mission in life. I believe that it is for this purpose that the modern state of Israel came into existence; for the return of the lost fragments of the Jewish people. This was written in the Prophets and this is indeed what we are seeing today.”
Rabbi Amsalem is undeniably ultra-Orthodox but describes himself as “a different sort of ultra-Orthodox.”
The tension between the religious and the non-religious, between the different sections of religious society, between those who serve in the IDF and those who do not; this tension is our biggest threat today. I am in the middle, joining them. I believe in a religion that brings people together, a religion that is understanding. I reject religious coercion just as I reject anti-religious coercion.”
If Amsalem is a religious and political enigma, he has clearly found a partner in Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin was raised in a religious Zionist environment, serving as an officer in the IDF. He was fo, a long time, part of the Likud Party. But he does not use those terms, religious or political, to self-identify.
“I am not a representative of what is defined as ‘the religious,’” Feiglin told Breaking Israel News, unconsciously echoing Amsalem’s sentiments. “My connection with Rabbi Amsalem was a natural bond. He is not the classic case of an ultra-Orthodox man and I am not the classic case of a right winger. Rabbi Amsalem was kicked out by the classic ultra-Orthodox establishment. I was kicked out by the classic right-wing.”
“We represent a new consciousness in which there is no concept right or left wing and even the terms religious and secular are no longer relevant,” Feiglin said, noting that this was perfectly congruent with Amsalem’s personal background as a Sephardi Jew. “Rabbi Amsalem represents the authentic Sephardi Judaism for which the concept of ultra-Orthodox is not relevant. The Sephardi don’t use the terms secular and religious. They don’t have that separation.”
Feiglin emphasized that this was not a universalist feel-good philosophy but was instead a true reflection of what is taking place in Israel today.
“This consciousness that includes all aspects of the population is our message and it is now the majority of the Israeli society,” Feiglin said.
When asked how being religious affected his politics, Feiglin gave a doubly enigmatic response.
“I do not self-identify as religious,” he said. “I try do mitzvoth (Torah commandments) but I perceive ‘religious’ as not an entirely positive description. The same is true of being defined as a politician. There was a time when politics was a way to advance ideas but it has become, unfortunately, a way to advance people. For me, politics is very important. It is a responsibility.”
Though generally known to be an ideologue, a philosopher-politician, Feiglin sees his role in politics as pragmatic.
“Every nation has a role to play in history. This, of course, includes Israel. This can be described as a ‘geula’ (redemption) process. But my role in this is to ensure that the next generation can afford a place to live, can afford to buy food, can make a living, can be educated.”