Sometimes you work hard for your interviews and sometimes they fall into your lap when you least expect it. Today, a rather big one fell right into mine.
Yesterday, in an optimistic mood, I sent out emails to the chairs and deputy chairs of every political party in the Knesset in the vain hope that I might receive a response. While in the midst of arranging other interviews for the week, I received a phone call from someone speaking to me very quickly in Hebrew. I only got the very general gist; something like asking me if I was Ariel Zellman and if I had time to speak to so-and-so very official sounding.
I struggled for a minute or so trying to figure out with whom I was speaking and was handed off to someone else, who I am fairly certain now is an aid to the Minister for Science and Technology. He asked if I could call back in about 1:30 because the Minister was soon leaving for the United States and would only have time for a very brief interview on the phone. I quickly agreed and then the conversation was over.
Piecing it all together, I realized that I had been called by the staff of Rav Daniel Hershkovitz, the head of the Israeli political party HaBayit HaYehudi (the new National Religious Party) and a senior government minister. Needless to say, I was totally unprepared. For the next hour, I wrapped up my other phone calls and scrambled to put together a concise list of coherent questions so that I would be better prepared for round two.
A very quick bit of background on HaBayit HaYehudi. Literally translated at the Jewish Home party, it is basically a rebranding of the old National Religious Party of Israel which ran in the 2009 election. Initially, the party was to be a collection of the old NRP, Moledet, and Tekuma. Prior to the election, Moledet and Tekuma broke away and rejoined Hatikvah in HaIchud Leumi (National Union), a party considered to be right of HaBayit HaYehudi. In any event, in 2009, the party won three seats and joined the coalition government led by Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud Party. The party’s leader, Rabbi Daniel Hershkovitz, serves as a rabbi in Haifa, a professor of mathematics at the Technion, and, as previously mentioned, holds the portfolio for Science and Technology in the current coalition government.
As the minister’s time was short, I did my utmost to get to the heart of the interview right away. First, I asked for him to explain a bit to me a bit about a piece of the party’s old platform, to see if it was still relevant. It reads:
The core belief "the Land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel" commits the N.R.P. to doing everything possible to further the security and integrity of the Land of Israel. The NRP aspires to influence policy from within the government, and thus continue to safeguard Eretz Israel.
He emphasized to me that the focus of the party is Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel according to principles of Torah Judaism. This, he argued, means that the government must be responsive not only to issues of territory, but to serve Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) in terms of social policy, educational policy, social welfare, etc. It means to try to employ a “Jewish” point of view in discussing all aspects of the country and the state. Short on time, I did not press him to define what this means to his party precisely.
Rather, I moved to a discussion of the party’s policies with regard to four contentious territorial spaces in Israeli politics: Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan, and Gaza. Asking him about his party’s policy with respect to Jerusalem, he stated that the party unequivocally maintains that the city is not divisible under any circumstances and should remain under Jewish sovereignty without any constraints. As to the boundaries of Jerusalem, he argued that the borders of the city are quite clear; that the existing municipal boundaries should be the final boundaries of the city with the inclusion of Ma’ale Adumim, now the 3rd largest Jewish city in the West Bank to the East of Jerusalem proper.
Pressing him a bit further on this definition of boundaries, I asked if he considered Abu Dis, now on the eastern side of the Security Barrier, to be an integral party of Jerusalem. He replied that he is not eager to increase the non-Jewish population of the capital and, as such, believes that such areas where the majority population is Arab should be excluded. I then asked if Issawiya, another majority Palestinian village on the edge of Jerusalem, but on the western side of the security barrier, should be included. Although I am not certain that the minister was familiar with this village, he repeated that such Arab majority areas could easily be left outside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.
Finally, I pressed him on the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, both Arab majority villages/neighborhoods within Jerusalem. He believes that these areas should remain a part of Jerusalem despite their demographics as they are places where Jews “always used to live” and live again now. I have already discussed the Jewish history of Silwan in two separate posts (one on the City of David and the other on the Old Yemenite Village). As for Sheikh Jarrah, the most important property disputes there revolve around the Shimon HaTzadik compound, where the tomb of Simeon the Just, a High Priest during the Second Temple, is theoretically located.
Asking why it is so important that Jerusalem remains a united city, he responded that the city is the heart of the Jewish people. It was in this place that the Temple stood and where the Jewish people were consecrated. Here, he believes, notions of Jewish religious identity and Israeli national identity are inherently and inextricably intertwined, making the city’s division unthinkable. In this, he believes the majority of Israelis agree. Most interesting for me in this discussion of Jerusalem was that although themes of religion, identity, and Jewish self-determination were raised, the state’s security was never once mentioned as being a reason for or against conceding territory in Jerusalem. Additionally, it it notable that although the minister asserted that the city is indivisible, there is clearly space for compromise in that his party would hypothetically be willing to give up peripheral Arab majority areas in order to secure Jerusalem’s Jewish majority.
Next, I turned to the question of the partition of or withdrawal from the West Bank. Again, he began with a very inflexible stance, that he and his party see no room for another state besides Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Asking what Israel should do with the Palestinian population, he said that they should be the responsibility of the Jordanians and other Arab states. I did not have a chance to go into details if he meant that they should be transferred out of the territory as was once popular among the Israeli right, or that they should be granted limited, non-territorial autonomy under Jordanian rule as is growing popular among the right today.
From here, pragmatism began to set in. He said that although he would prefer that Israel annex the West Bank and make it a formal part of Israel, he is aware in practice that some agreement might be made which would exclude some portion of these territories. Although this is far from the desired solution, “being realistic” he believes this may happen. Pressing him on why the West Bank is important to Israel, he responded that this is where the Jewish nation was born, that it is full of Jewish stories, and integral to the Promised Land. It is just natural, he believes, that this land should be a part of the Jewish State. Again, I found it to be interesting that the issue of security never once was raised, while themes of historical and religious claims to the area as the Jewish Homeland reverberated throughout this portion of our discussion.
Turning to the Golan, he also asserted that this territory should remain a part of Israel. While he is fully in support of making peace with Syria, he does not believe that this should come at the cost of withdrawing from the Golan. Why is this territory important to Israel, I asked? Because it provides a strategic advantage over the whole of the Galilee. When the territory was in other countries’ hands, he argued, Israel suffered quite a lot and they should not repeat the same mistakes by withdrawing. Note that unlike our discussion of Jerusalem and the West Bank, themes of historical and religious entitlement were never raised, but rather the entire discussion turned around the physical security of the State of Israel.
Finally turning to Gaza, the minister asserted that his party was firmly against the 2005 Disengagement. Asking him whether he believed Israel should return to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, he said that Israel should allow for the resettlement of Gush Katif, but it should not return to control Arab cities, namely Gaza City. Asking why Gaza was important to Israel, he cited two justifications: that historically this territory has been a part of the Land of Israel with evidence of ancient Jewish settlement, and that “the settlers of our generation” turned the desert into a blooming place. Here I got answers I did not entirely expect, namely in that he never once mentioned the issue of security vis-a-vis Gaza. Perhaps more surprisingly, he pointed to themes of self-determination and economic productivity (or Lockean notions of productive use of land confirming territorial title) as reasons for re-entering the Strip in addition to historical claims.
I was hoping to ask him more with regard to the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in the late 1970s and early 1980s and about tensions brewing in the so-called Arab Triangle of the northern Galilee region of Israel. Unfortunately, our time was pressed and speaking with a government minister for over half-an-hour was already more than I could have asked for. I am thankful for a very illuminating interview and can only hope that I am half as successful in my conversations with representatives from the other parties.
Now it is already quite late, and I have a busy day tomorrow. I am going to bed. Stay tuned for the latest updates and thank you as always for reading.