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A New Party With An Old Platform For An Old-New Land



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Chaim Amsalem, a current member of Knesset and former member of Shas, is in the midst of establishing yet another Israeli political party, called Am Shalem. Though the Israeli polity already maintains a dizzying array of political factions, whose platforms traverse the many social and political cleavages of the nation, Rabbi Amsalem and his followers have built a unique movement around one of the most basic and most grossly overlooked aspects of Israeli society: national unity, civic equality and a moderate religious elite.

A well-established figure in Shas, and the only one of its members to hold rabbinic ordination from the Rabbanut HaReishit, Rabbi Amsalem was expelled from Shas earlier this year, after breaking ranks with the political aides of the party’s indomitable premier, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Rabbi Amsalem’s rupture with Shas followed in the wake of several years of reciprocal discontent, as both Amsalem and Shas’s elite came to the mutual understanding that the party was not representative of the man, while the man was no longer representative of the party. Rabbi Dov Lipman – a leading member in Am Shalem who, should the party gain enough seats to be admitted to the Parliament, would be the first American Member of Knesset to have made aliyah as an adult – explained that the Algerian-born Amsalem initially believed that Shas represented the “crown of Israel’s Sephardic political establishment,” but he eventually grew increasingly discontented with the Party’s emergence as merely “another arm of the other Lithuanian haredi parties who are pushing the haredi community further to the extreme.”

Following his dismissal from Shas for his views against the community’s high levels of unemployment and his vocal opposition to the party’s hard stance against the halachic conversions of unquestionably loyal Jews with patrilineal lineages, Amsalem sought out a party whose platform looked to establish national unity and domestic development. Over the past number of years, Amsalem has written extensively in favor of these types of conversions citing the halachic principles of Zera Yisrael as support for his views. (Zera Yisrael mandates that Jews with ambiguous heritage, many of whom have served in the IDF, should still be included in the broader Jewish community if they seek proper conversion and demonstrate fidelity to the religion and the people.) Yet, while Israel’s roughly seven-and-a-half million people are served by a dozen distinct political parties that hold seats in the Parliament, Amsalem could not find a single party which called for the broad reforms that he deemed critical to Israel’s continued social development. Though other political factions have tried and overwhelmingly failed to curb extremism within the haredi community, Amsalem believes that his years of leadership in the religious community will enable him to succeed where others had not.

MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem (right) receiving the Quality Leadership Award for 2011, with Rabbi Dov Lipman.

Rabbi Dov Lipman explained that many within Israel’s political elite focus their attention towards foreign issues such as national security and the peace process. In the meantime, the nation’s social foundation has decayed from within, with religious and secular Jews being more ideologically divided than ever. According to Amsalem, at the forefront of national discord is the increased radicalization of the haredi establishment that has overwhelmingly shirked its civic responsibilities since the founding of the State. Entire haredi communities dedicate themselves exclusively to religious study, remain unemployed and rely solely on government welfare for subsistence. Furthermore, most within these communities abstain from compulsory national service, a staple of Israel’s social fabric.

Over the years, Rabbi Amsalem has grown increasingly discontented with this long standing status-quo and has resolved that his political future be dedicated to rectifying these dangerous social inequities. Therefore, in its dedication to national unity, the Am Shalem Party will assume a very unique identity within the Israeli polity as a party that will join in coalition with any party that achieves premiership. Am Shalem does not represent a special interest constituency, and unlike other parties it will not look to push forward the agendas of any individual political position, Amsalem has said. Instead, Am Shalem and its leaders will join with any party in government to advocate for legislation that will strengthen national unity and secure Israel’s social foundation for its posterity.

Though Amsalem initiated the development of the party while still occupying the upper echelon of Israel’s political hierarchy, at its foundation Am Shalem is a social movement. It is this identity that Am Shalem’s founding fathers cleave to, as both a practical and ideological impetus for the party’s continued development. Rather than campaigning in the traditional sense, Amsalem and Lipman have publicized their platform on the streets of Beit Shemesh, where national and religious disunity and the lack of a greater collective Israeli identity has littered the headlines of newspapers worldwide. Amsalem maintains that his calls for increasing the employment rates within the haredi population, enforcing compulsory national service, passing legislation that would encourage the establishment of haredi schools that would teach secular studies, and calling for the modernization of the rabbinic gentry are views that are espoused both throughout Israeli society and by most within the haredi community.

Far from being merely a social movement, already in its nascent stages, members of Am Shalem have begun to consolidate their social ideals into a practical political platform. Amsalem remains committed to placing national unity and social equality at the forefront of his political aspirations. Therefore, he has publicly declared that any future Am Shalem list will have some of its highest ranked seats reserved for women and secular members of the Party. Even if only elected to the Knesset with the fewest possible seats, Am Shalem will look to represent the full range of Israeli society. Additionally, members of the party have proclaimed that their stand for national unity and religious moderation will not be left on the streets of Beit Shemesh, but will continue in the Knesset, where its party’s members are committed to fighting the religious extremism and special interests of Shas and Degel HaTorah.

As Am Shalem looks forward to upcoming elections, its members have taken pause to consider the Israel of tomorrow. It is their hope, that have said, that by moderating religious extremism and advocating for a religious elite that is both scrupulous in its halachic rulings but divorced from its propensity to espouse non-mandated halachic stringencies, Israeli society will be a place of tolerance for all Jews. In the future Israeli society, secular elements of the society will return to embracing the need for the nation to maintain Judaism’s unbroken chain of religious observance, even if they themselves choose not to commit to religious practice. Ultimately, Am Shalem and its supporters dream about an Israel that is united, with a society that is free and socially open, while remaining dedicated to the religious principles that have sustained the Jewish nation throughout the millennia.

But before you write their dream off as impossible, the people of Israel are beginning to rally behind Am Shalem and its members. In the past weeks, Am Shalem, in its first showing in a nationwide poll, successfully secured two seats in a prospective Parliament. Needing to only secure three seats to be admitted to the legislature, and with nearly two years before the next scheduled election, the future seems bright for Am Shalem, and its dreams for establishing national unity as a preeminent force in Israel’s social and political future. In any case, Amsalem and his supporters will most probably continue to try to make the ideal of national unity, an old but truly progressive platform, a reality in Israel’s future and in doing so reaffirm one of the State’s most fundamental principles. As Herzl wrote, in his pioneering work Altneuland, “If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.”

Joseph Offenbacher

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