| Face to Face |

Face to Face with Degel HaTorah Head Moshe Gafni

 On media bias and Bibi, Gafni comes out swinging

Photos: Flash 90

It’s been a dramatic five months for the long-serving head of the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee and Degel HaTorah, Moshe Gafni, now 68. Hospitalized himself as the chareidi world came under fire for failing to help control the coronavirus pandemic, he was released only to confront segments of the chareidi voting public demanding he take a stronger position on closures of shuls and schools.

His more than three decades as MK means that Gafni has an interesting perspective on the upcoming elections, Israel’s fourth in two years. He fears that the political deadlock won’t be broken, despite the right-on-right conflict in this race. He unapologetically defends the chareidi parties’ alliance with Binyamin Netanyahu, but insists that his party hasn’t become a satellite of the Likud.

And his position on Yair Lapid, once again Bibi’s main political rival, hasn’t changed: “I don’t ban anyone, but we can’t sit in the same coalition.”

Let’s start with your feeling about the elections, now just weeks away. Your party has barely started campaigning — are you anxious about the way things are developing?

“We’ve never had a campaign quite like this. Ordinarily we would be holding meetings and organizing mass rallies with gedolei haTorah, but this time that isn’t possible, and the situation is both strange and worrisome. The corona is a blow from Shamayim that’s being felt in every area. In the area of politics, going to the current elections was extremely stupid, and what’s worse is that there’s no end in sight. According to the polls, no one will win a majority and we may have to go to another election campaign.”

That’s your prediction? Another draw?

“Yes. We all see the same signs. No one knows for sure, we can only make informed guesses. But at the end of the day, there are two blocs in Israeli politics, so we could easily once again reach a situation where there’s no decision. And if there’s no decision, we’ll have to go to elections again — which is a terrible thing, in a time like this.”

But there’s a difference this time. It’s no longer a battle between right and left-wing blocs, because now that Gideon Saar has emerged as a candidate on the right, the picture has changed. You could sit with him too.

“Yes. First it was the right-wing bloc versus the left-wing bloc, now it’s a pro-Bibi bloc and an anti-Bibi bloc. It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, we’re in the same situation. It’s possible that things will change after the elections, but as far as I can tell the deadlock won’t be broken.”

But look at it this way: There are three right-wing leaders, Bennett, Saar, and Lieberman — each one with his merits and defects — who are willing to paralyze the country for as long as it takes, as long as Netanyahu won’t be prime minister. Is it possible that the problem lies with Netanyahu and not with them?

“Netanyahu isn’t a member of UTJ, and nor are the other three, so I’m under no obligation to do their cheshbon hanefesh for them. The reality is that a large part of the country wants Netanyahu as prime minister. In prime minister preference polls, he beats every other candidate handily. And he brought the vaccines, you can’t take that away from him. What no other leader anywhere in the world could do, Netanyahu did. The reality that he’s devoting himself both to foreign affairs, concluding peace deal after peace deal, and to security affairs, and even to the economy, is frankly unmatched by all these other pretenders. That’s a fact. If Saar doesn’t want him, and Bennett doesn’t want him, and Lieberman doesn’t want him — fine, so they don’t want him.”

You know them firsthand. They bring serious charges against Bibi’s management of the corona, on both the health and economic fronts. As someone who’s familiar with the situation firsthand, can you say it’s just their egos talking? That even now, after 13 years, Netanyahu is the only man capable of serving as prime minister?

“I didn’t say that. I have no pretension to handing out grades. I know Netanyahu and I know them. and I’ll say about him: Netanyahu is eminently fit to serve as prime minister. I’ve known the man ever since he was the ambassador at the UN, and also later when he was deputy foreign minister.”

One fact is incontestable. Netanyahu failed to form a government, again and again. Isn’t it time to just say “enough”?

“Okay, let’s talk about who’s preventing him from forming a government. When it comes to Avigdor Lieberman, it could be that I don’t have the full picture. In fact I’ve heard that there are details of the Lieberman-Netanyahu relationship that I’m not familiar with, very possibly there are other factors too… anyway, as I don’t know too much about that, I’d rather not enter into it. As for Bennett and Saar, about Bennett I can say without a doubt that if he had received a portfolio to his liking, he wouldn’t have come out against Netanyahu. After all, we were willing to let Yamina take the Justice Committee, because we wanted the Economy Committee.”

In 2013, a Bennett-Lapid alliance left the chareidim out of the government. Do you think it will happen again, under Gideon Saar? That is, if Bennett has an option to form a government without the chareidim, do you see Bennett, Saar, Lapid, and Lieberman banding together against us?

“I don’t think that will happen. Shas and UTJ are strong, stable parties that represent a very clear-cut constituency. I don’t think any of them will want to repeat the mistake made by Yair Lapid in his day, but we live in the Middle East, anything can happen.”

Here we are talking about personalities, but a poll recently showed that 52% of right-wing voters want a government without the chareidim.

“We need to open our eyes to what’s going on around us. I don’t think that will happen, but it’s clear there’s incitement against the chareidim. It’s clear that some politicians think they’ll gain from saying they won’t sit with the chareidim. I don’t think the poll next week will show the same numbers. I think it’s a trend that goes back and forth and it’s currently on the wane.”

But it doesn’t seem the incitement will stop before the elections.

“There’s an anti-chareidi group that’s ready to exploit every opportunity to attack the chareidim, and the corona offers them an opportunity. There’s always someone ready to exploit a situation… As far as I can tell, the reason a coalition was formed without the chareidim in 2013 was because of the pact between Bennett and Lapid, who refused to sit with the chareidim, and in part because Netanyahu was willing to cooperate with him — but that’s not a situation that’s going to repeat itself. That’s my view. And by the way, so far Lieberman is the only one who ruled out sitting with us.”

When you see how the chareidi parties are viewed as satellite parties of Netanyahu and the Likud, don’t you wish you had remained neutral? We would get attacked less and have more room for maneuvering.

“Let’s set the record straight. First of all, UTJ is not a satellite party of Netanyahu. We stick to Netanyahu because we’re with the traditional [mesorati] public that votes Likud. When it wasn’t Netanyahu, when it was Shamir, we went with him. We’ve always supported the Likud candidate for prime minister because we stick with the mesorati public that’s with the Likud. We have our disagreements with the prime minister. I’ve worked with him many years, as have my colleagues. We know him. In the final analysis, he’s a good prime minister. He’s a good prime minister for the chareidi community too. I know that he isn’t always happy when we praise him, and I also know that he doesn’t always pay his debts to us in full…”

Come on, what didn’t you get from him?

“A lot of things. For instance with the corona, there’s the school closures. Also shuls, we had to fight very hard on that issue… It’s hard because he’s terrified of secular public sentiment, he’s afraid it will cost him votes…”

You mentioned matters of hashkafah in relation to Likud. So let’s talk a moment about your hashkafah in other areas. As someone whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been well known since Rav Shach’s time — how are you going to sit in the same coalition with Itamar Ben Gvir, the heir of Kahane, whose alliance with Betzalel Smotrich Netanyahu brought about?

“I don’t know, we’ll talk after the elections. We don’t know what the results will be. One of the news networks asked me yesterday, ‘What do you think about Ben Gvir?’ Look, my hope is that people will vote for UTJ, which finds the correct balance between hashkafic issues and issues of importance to the chareidi community. Don’t vote for a party that yells loudly, but when it comes to the needs of the chareidi community, is nowhere to be found.”

There are two ways of looking at what happened here this past year. You can cry out against anti-Semitism and say people are inciting against us. Or you can say, look, the majority of the secular population didn’t understand why we were still gathering, davening, and dancing at weddings as if there were no pandemic… I’m sure you’ve seen examples of this rage and disillusionment. Even people who aren’t haters are asking, what’s happening to you, the chareidim?

“Look, for part of the time, I was out of action and couldn’t do very much, unfortunately. Today I’m in the thick of it. As Knesset members, we’re in an impossible position, and we’re constantly flooded with contradictory petitions. Of course with the chareidim, everyone is very opinionated, everyone has chosen a side. There are those who attack us for not opposing the police and the government, ‘look what they’re doing to us…’ And we also get petitions from the same people or their friends and neighbors that run exactly the opposite: ‘this is a public health emergency, it’s pikuach nefesh, how dare you interfere in this and oppose the government and the health ministry and the police, etc.’ It’s really quite exhausting.”

When you were asked about the chareidi community’s responsibility for what’s happening, you were outraged…

“I’ve been in Israeli public life for many years. I’m very closely connected to all the different sectors — first and foremost to the chareidi community, but to the secular as well. There is a group in secular society that wants to deprive the chareidim of all legitimacy. Especially in recent years we’re in touch with kiruv efforts among the mesorati and secular population, and some of this group, mostly on the left, want us shorn of influence. The corona was a gift from Shamayim to these people, because it gives them an unprecedented opportunity to bash the chareidim.

“During COVID-19, each sector’s behavior affects every other sector, and the press attack us relentlessly for things that leave us dumbfounded. There’s terrible incitement against the chareidi community, even though we know that the vast majority of the chareidi public is extremely careful about mask wearing — while in Tel Aviv you don’t see the same thing, in their parties — nature parties or whatever they call them, on the beach.”

But they say there’s a difference between the individual violations of the corona regulations in the secular sector and the institutionalized violation of the regulations in the chareidi sector.

“Hang on a minute, let go of that nonsense about ‘institutionalized’ for a moment… let’s talk about health. They’ve found an opportunity to hit us where it hurts, to destroy our image among the mesorati sector. The proof is that it happened twice, first after the first lockdown and again after the second — that the infection rate dropped dramatically in the chareidi sector. It’s happening again now.

“But when the chareidi infection rate is low, the press is quiet all of a sudden. And they don’t put things in context — about crowded living, about a different lifestyle when it comes to davening, weddings, and so on. They’re trying to blacken our name with brazen lies, and it’s just not true. Because the chareidi public, in which I live, or the overwhelming majority of it — and I’m not talking about isolated cases or groups on the margin — follows the regulations more carefully than any other sector.”

Maybe that victim mentality made sense in the past. Now we’re part of the leadership of the state, we have a place at the decision-making table. Isn’t it time to grow up and say, yes, there are groups in our community who are endangering peoples’ lives? We see it with vaccinations and we see it with events that continue to be held despite the risk to life. Why can’t we admit to imperfections within our community?

“I actually do say that, and I’ve never shied from that. But I wasn’t elected to give mussar. That’s a matter for the private sphere. It has nothing to do with whether you’re in power. I say it all the time. Wear masks. Don’t congregate. Get vaccinated. I say it all the time, but I don’t give mussar.”

You mentioned two occasions when the infection rate in the community dropped, but you can’t get away from the bottom line: the death rate among chareidim over 60 is almost four times that of the secular population. The infection was out of control in our community, and you can’t set that down purely to crowded living. Where’s the cheshbon hanefesh?

“It’s true there were times when the infection rate was quite high, and I admitted that. I don’t run away from responsibility. But it comes from a different lifestyle. The chareidi community has leadership, which I’m not really a part of. Each group has its own leadership. We have spiritual leadership, so I’m not going to say a word about it. It’s incontestable that people take cases that have nothing to do with mainstream chareidi society, like the burning of the bus, and keep the picture of the burned-out bus in the headlines for days to give us a bad image. It’s total nonsense. Just incitement.”

And what will you say to a UTJ voter who asks how you’re expecting him to vote for a party, members of which went without masks and encouraged gatherings, leading to the high infection rate as well as fury from the secular street, and how is it that Gafni never condemned that?

“First of all, I won’t even try to guess who you’re referring to, but the fact is that I, Yaakov Litzman, and all our friends in UTJ are constantly calling to wear masks and avoid large gatherings… Are the secular parties doing any more? We see the parties that take place in other sectors, the protests with thousands of people disobeying the regulations. We’re the ones who are taking responsibility and making every effort we can.”

You’ve just experienced a very difficult period in terms of your health. Baruch Hashem, you’ve recovered and gone back to work. This wasn’t a simple year for you. We were worried about you, like everyone else.

“Yes. Thanks for your concern. I really did feel that people were concerned about me, that they cared. Baruch Hashem, HaKadosh Baruch Hu helped me.”

And in that period of time, when you were outside the decision-making process looking in, and you saw our community, how did you feel?

“It was very difficult. We’re in a very difficult year. Because of the corona and also because of the endless elections, as we were saying. The chareidi community is subject to vicious attacks on a level of real incitement. I can bring you endless examples. Just three days ago there was a report in the press that in Kiryat Shmona, 100 percent of those over 60 have received the vaccine — and I’m happy for them, but then the district supervisor says that in Teveria it’s less, because of the chareidim living there. And then in the same news item you hear that in Zichron Yaakov, everyone over 60 has been vaccinated — and in Zichron Yaakov, there’s a large chareidi population, but they were all vaccinated.”

You said that this is the most difficult time for the chareidi community you can remember…

“That surprises you? And it’s not just with the corona and politics, either. For instance, I can tell you that I didn’t allow two missionary nonprofits to get a tax exemption on donations. My thinking was that they’re at the center of a very heated public controversy and the state shouldn’t go easy on them… Look, they’re here for missionary purposes. So we held a vote in the Finance Committee, and everyone voted with me. Everyone. Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, left and right — it passed unanimously.

“But then the attorney general went to the justice system, and they petitioned the High Court to argue that we were wrong, and that tax exemption did apply. Never mind that there’s a huge public battle over their legitimacy, but that’s the Israeli justice system. We need to put an end to that.”

By the way, one of those who came to the committee to vote against the tax exemption for the missionaries was Yair Lapid. He came especially to vote on that…

“Among others, he wasn’t the only one.”

Are you still of the view that Lapid is off limits? You won’t sit with him under any circumstances?

“I don’t rule out anyone. I don’t have a concept of a ban. I speak with everyone…”

Even Lapid?

“I don’t ban anyone. That word doesn’t appear in my vocabulary. I sit down with all kinds of people who are there… If I were in kollel, I probably wouldn’t associate with a lot of them. But in the Knesset, I sit down with everyone, I talk with everyone. Yair Lapid’s platform doesn’t suit us. We can’t sit in the same coalition. We can sit with the Likud, for instance, even though there’s a huge gap between us on many issues, because there’s nothing fundamentally anti-chareidi in their platform, and because we ourselves have no fundamental problem with the right, per se. So we can sit with them. It’s true that Lapid has toned down his rhetoric, no one doubts that, but until we hear that his priorities on all the issues that are most important to us have changed as well, we can’t sit with Lapid.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 851)

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