With the run-up to the first-ever internal primaries for the Jewish Home Party (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi) in full steam, one of the most hotly discussed issues is the candidacy of 36-year old Ayelet Shaked.
The co-founder and former chairman of the MyIsrael (Yisrael Sheli) national movement, the recipient of the 2012 Abramowitz Israeli Prize for Media Criticism and a close associate of Naftali Bennett – the two worked together in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the 2009 elections – Shaked is raising some eyebrows due to the fact that she, unlike Bennett, is a self-declared secularist.
Thus while Naftali Bennett is seen as taking on the old guard in his bid to become the new chairman of the Jewish Home Party, Ayelet Shaked is facing an equally difficult task in attempting to become the first secular member of Knesset for a party that was formerly known as the National Religious Party (Mafdal). While no one doubts her strong pro-Israel credentials, not surprisingly the voices are divided within the national religious world regarding a secular candidate for a traditionally religious party.
After reading much about her in the Hebrew press, I decided to meet with her in a Tel Aviv café in order to get an up close impression of this up and coming star.
Yoel Meltzer (YM): You grew up in Northern Tel Aviv, not exactly the breeding ground for future right-wing stars. This being the case, from where did you acquire your strong connection to many of the ideals of the religious Zionist world?
Ayelet Shaked (AS): I think originally a bit came from my home. My mother was a teacher of Bible in Tel Aviv and my father was masoriti (traditional). Every Saturday we went to synagogue and we made kiddush. However, since the discussions at home tended to stay away from politics most of my political views I eventually developed myself.
Later on when I was in the army I served in the Golani and I became close friends with many religious Zionist soldiers. This in turn strengthened my ideology. I also spent part of my army time in Hebron and became friends with many people there, which also had an influence. But overall most of my political views I just developed on my own.
YM: Was there any one person or a particular event that had a profound influence in shaping your world outlook and political views?
AS: Yes. I remember when I was very young, perhaps 8-years old, I saw a debate between Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Shamir and I really liked Shamir. So I think since then, even though I was just a child, I’ve considered myself right-wing.
YM: Before you announced your intention to run in the primaries of the Jewish Home party, did you expect the reaction your candidacy has triggered?
AS: I must admit most of the people are very warm and happy with my candidacy. I receive many emails and messages in Facebook, people saying we support you and we’re very glad you’re with us. They’re in favor of opening the divides and having real cooperation between different people in Israel. I’ve also met many yeshiva students who have told me that their rabbis are very excited that I’m getting involved since they’ve been waiting for years for the party to stop being a closed one-sector party. So overall I really believe that those who are opposed to my entering the party are a minority.
Having said that, I definitely expected there would be some opposition and I understand it. I realize that my presence within the party makes some people uncomfortable.
YM: Have you been contacted by any of the rabbis or public leaders who are opposed to your candidacy on the grounds that you’re secular?
AS: No, none of them have contacted me directly.
YM: If one of them were to contact you, what would you say to him?
AS: First of all it’s his right and I respect that. Even though we may have different views we need to respect each other. Nevertheless I would tell him that if we want to have a large party to the right of Netanyahu, one that is based on the Bible and Jewish values, then the party needs to be opened to secular and traditional Jews that identify with the values of the religious Zionist community.
I truly believe that if they open their heart and open their mind to cooperate with other people that share the same values, then we can have a big party. Otherwise the party will continue with three mandates.
YM: Do you feel offended by their opposition or take it personal?
AS: No, this is politics. I don’t take it personal. As I told you I respect their view and it’s also a legitimate view.
YM: Given all of the above, why on earth are you getting involved davka in the Jewish Home Party? Do you really need the headache?!
AS: I’m doing this because I believe in it. I have many close friends who are religious Zionists and I think if we can be good friends, work together and serve in the army together, then there is no reason we should not be part of the same party. Moreover, since we believe in the same values and hold similar opinions then I think we should go fight for them in the Knesset.
YM: It’s better to do this via the Jewish Home Party than via the Likud?
AS: It’s a dilemma. I was a Likud member for many years. The problem in the Likud is that every leader takes the Likud to the left. It wasn’t easy for me to take this step.
YM: Okay, now that you’ve decided to go full steam ahead, what are the burning issues you’d like to address if and when you become a member of Knesset?
AS: The first item is to develop a strong Jewish identity in all of the Jews in Israel. This needs to be part of the education system, not just in the religious schools but in the school of my son as well. When Zevulun Hammer was the Minister of Education there was a specific department responsible for the Jewish identity in the schools. This needs to be reestablished.
I’m also already very involved, personally and via MyIsrael, in all the issues regarding the post-Zionist organizations and their attempt to change Israel from a Jewish democratic state to a “nation of all its citizens”. So if I become a member of Knesset I want to be involved in hasbara (public diplomacy) in Israel and around the world in order to expose the intentions of some of the extreme left-wing organizations and stop their penetration into the country. These organizations are involved in a wide range of anti-Israel activities such as the delegitimization of IDF soldiers, divestment of Israel around the world and aid for what they call African refugees even though most are in fact infiltrators.
Finally I’d like to encourage women to go out and work, to become involved in the business world, in public life or whatever they want. Of course I’m only talking about women that want to do this. I have friends who prefer to stay at home and raise their kids and I respect this. But regarding those who want to work and have a career we need to find ways to enable this.
YM: Even if you should succeed in addressing these issues, what other areas of Israeli society need to be changed in order for Israel to become more in line with the type of country you’d like it to be?
AS: First of all I want to say that I believe Israel is a miracle and I think we’re a very healthy country. We have a strong economy, a high level of mutual concern compared to other countries and overall there is a lot of good here.
The most important thing we need to do to make it even better is to reduce the socioeconomic gaps in the society. This needs to be done through the education system so that a child in the periphery will have the same opportunities like a child in my Tel Aviv neighborhood.
YM: Let’s change the subject to Naftali Bennett. After meeting a few years ago while working together in Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, when did the two of you decide to join forces in trying to make an impact in Israel?
AS: After both of us left Netanyahu’s office we tried to decide what is the best thing to do; to go back to the private sector or to remain in public life? Personally I strongly admire the private sector and I told Naftali many times that if you can establish a big company that can create thousands of jobs, do it. It’s one of the most important things in life to provide someone with a job.
For many months we continued debating this subject until Naftali decided that he wanted to devote his life to the people of Israel and that the best way to do this is through the public sector. So he went to work with the Yesha Council and I returned to the private sector.
It was at this time, on the side from our new jobs, that we jointly created together the MyIsrael national movement.
YM: What exactly is the MyIsrael movement?
AS: It’s a national movement of about 100,000 people that are mainly right-wing and share the same values and ideas. There are so many people that want to be involved and give of themselves for various causes yet they don’t want to stop their lives. So MyIsrael is a way, via the internet and Facebook, to activate these people for certain issues. In many ways we’re like a large lobby group. For instance we’ve pressured Knesset members to pass certain laws, we fought a campaign against Galei Tzahal (Israel Army Radio) and their predominately left-leaning agenda in order to have more balance in their programs and we stopped some boycotts of Israel. Believe me, when 20,000 emails are sent to someone overseas who wants to boycott Israel he’s going to think twice.
YM: In addition to you and Naftali, who are the other members of your group that are trying to get in to the Jewish Home Party?
AS: First of all there is Rabbi Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF. He actually hasn’t made up his mind if he wants to be a candidate but he’s very involved with us. He shares the same views as us and believes it’s very important that religious and non-religious work together. Naftali introduced him to me a few months ago and he’s actually the one who pushed me into this. We’ve become very close and the three of us, Naftali, Rabbi Ronsky and myself, speak every day.
In addition there is Moti Yogev, the former Secretary General of Bnei Akiva, and Dr Yehuda David, the Israeli physician who fought for the truth in the Mohammed al-Dura story.
Of course there is also current MK Uri Orbach who was very instrumental in convincing Naftali to get involved and run for the chairman of the party.
YM: Regarding Rabbi Ronsky, is he a sort of spiritual advisor providing guidance to you and Naftali?
AS: He’s much more than just spiritual. He’s working very hard, going to chugei bayit (parlor meetings), giving interviews and basically doing everything that I do. Personally I really admire him.
YM: What does he have to say about all the controversy regarding your candidacy? Has he spoken to you about it?
AS: Sure, he’s spoken to me many times about the issue and he encouraged me to run in the primaries. He’s so against the splitting up into separate sectors.
YM: What would happen if you receive a top spot in the primaries but Naftali loses in his bid to become the chairman of the party? Do you think the party has a chance of making a real impact without Naftali as the leader?
AS: No, I don’t think so. Without Naftali we’ll probably just get a few mandates. Although personally I’ll still run it would be very sad if Naftali is not with us.
YM: On a technical note, what happens to the two candidates (out of a total of three - Naftali Bennett, Zevulun Orlev, Daniel Hershkowitz) who lose in the election for the party chairman? Are they guaranteed a spot in the party or are they out of for good?
AS: They’re not guaranteed a spot but they can run in the list since the election for the head of the party is one week before the election for the rest of the list. Therefore if someone wins by a big margin and there is no need for a second round, then the two that lose can run in the list with everyone else. By the way, Orlev and Hershkowitz said that if they lose the election for the head of the party they’re not going to run in the list.
YM: I recently read that an internal committee of the Jewish Home Party decided to lower the amount of candidates that voters can choose in the primaries from five to three. In comparison to the Likud primaries of 2008 where members were allowed to choose 12 candidates for a general list as well as a few more for regional spots and new immigrants, these numbers are ridiculously low. They’re also lower than the 2008 Labor primaries where members chose between 5-8 candidates for a national list.
Why then, following the warmly received decision to finally open up the party to primaries, are they going in the opposite direction? Do you think there are certain people that are trying to prevent your group from getting in?
AS: First of all I respect the tremendous effort of Rabbi Tropper to bring primaries to the party and I also respect the work of the committee. However in this issue I think they made a mistake. Although people were definitely pushing them, in the end it was their decision. They said that it’s for the good of the party in that it will prevent the formation of internal groups.
Nevertheless, we asked for a revote of this decision since many voters are not happy with it. Obviously most voters want to choose more than just three candidates.
YM: Let’s assume that everything goes as planned and one day Naftali becomes the Prime Minister of Israel. If this were to happen, what would be your dream role? Would you like to serve as his Foreign Minister? Or perhaps Defense Minister or Finance Minister would suit you better?
AS: I think I’d like to be either Education Minister or Foreign Minister since both education and hasbara are close to my heart. Then again, if Naftali becomes Prime Minister I think I can retire and enjoy life!
Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted via http://yoelmeltzer.com.