Israel is gearing up for Knesset elections on March 17, and it seemed like the right time to interview Member of Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman. Lipman, 43, moved to Israel from Maryland in July 2004 with his wife and four children. He was elected to the current Knesset with the Yesh Atid party chaired by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and heads the Knesset taskforce to help the ultra-Orthodox enter the workforce.
I asked Lipman about his freshman term in the Knesset and if he learned things about the Knesset that he hadn’t known before. He replied: “You come into office and you feel like you are going to change the world. You think: ‘Now I’m in a position to effect real change, to do something about improving Israeli society.’ You slowly realize, however, that it’s not all up to you, that there are certain rules governing coalition politics; and so you say to yourself that you will be willing to realize just 75% of your goals.
“After a while in office, you are willing to settle for 60% of your goals. And then, when you truly realize how things get done, you realize that you will only be able to accomplish 30% of what you thought you would accomplish. The initial feeling when you realize this is frustrating, but then you sort of turn a corner: You focus on what you can do. The moment you turn that corner, it’s an exhilarating feeling. And after a while you can looks back and see what impact you have had. I am grateful and thankful for the opportunity.”
MK Lipman is known as the “Anglo” MK. He is the first American-born member of Knesset in 30 years, and he is the only Member of Knesset to have what he calls “Congressman hours.” Every Sunday morning in the Knesset, dozens of Israelis from all over the country descend upon MK Lipman’s offices for the opportunity to sit with him privately for 10 minutes. He says: “it’s a very straightforward meeting, it’s only 10 minutes, and we have to get right to the point. I am usually able to help the person in question, though I won’t be able to help in certain cases—but even then, when I say that I cannot help, that’s an answer as well.”
This doesn’t seem to make good political sense on his part—after all he has no indication whether or not the person he is trying to help voted for his party last elections or will vote for his party in the coming elections (typically Members of Knesset are beholden to a small group of party activists and not to the public at large). But Lipman says it’s part of the job: “It’s my responsibility to help, especially the English-speaking public. From day one I told my staff that we are going to be an office that people can turn to for help. I take my responsibility very seriously. Every email sent to my office is answered. No doubt that you hope that people will see that you tried to help them and remember you in the voting booth, but I really felt that as the first person in 30 years in the role of MK from America, I need to serve that community.”
When asked to reflect upon lawmaking in the Knesset as a member of the government coalition, MK Lipman said: “The coalition system is frustrating because you never want to vote against your beliefs, and yet coalition discipline mandated that I was not allowed to vote against anything put forward by the government.”
There were two cases where he had a conflict. These were votes concerning African refugees. MK Lipman felt that the government was not treating the refugees properly, with values bespeaking a Jewish state. On the first occasion he missed the vote because he was flying to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and on the second occasion he absented himself from the room (you cannot abstain from voting if you are in the coalition—you must be physically absent).
Concerning his party’s position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, MK Lipman said that Yesh Atid believes in a “pragmatic center” (as opposed to the right-wingers who believe that the status quo of ignoring several million Palestinians can be prolonged indefinitely, and as opposed to the left-wingers who believe that we will ultimately secure a peace agreement if we return to negotiations with the Palestinians). Yesh Atid’s position, according to MK Lipman, is “to work with the modern Arab states who are more afraid of Islamic fundamentalists than us—to reach out to those relationships and let them pressure Abu Mazen into making the necessary compromises.” Lipman is clear that these compromises will not result in peace but in separation: “They will be over there and we will be over here.”
I wondered how Lipman as a religious person from a centrist party deals with the overwhelmingly right-wing religious public. He said: “We have a lot of work to do to explain our position. I very much don’t allow people to hijack Zionism or true Judaism. I very much say that no one is going to tell me that I don’t love Israel. I also love Israel and I also believe that God gave us all of Israel, but we have to face reality. Who says Zionism or love of Israel means that you possibly destroy Israel—and this will happen if we think that the status quo can go on forever. I am not thrilled to compromise but that’s what we have to do.”
As to Yesh Atid’s chances in the upcoming elections? MK Lipman said: “I feel that the party is in a very good place. We have been able to accomplish a lot in one year and eight months—people don’t realize how much we have been able to get done in a wide variety of areas. In my case, I can tell you that there have been many times when strangers have come up to me and thanked me for taking care of an issue for them. I’m looking forward to continuing my work, to setting an example of responsibility in the Knesset--and people will notice that that’s worthwhile.”
Yesh Atid and MK Lipman have their work cut out for them: Polls indicate that the party’s representation in the Knesset will plunge from its current 19 to 9—and MK Lipman is slated as #17.
By Teddy Weinberger
Special to The Jewish Link NJ/BWC