Photo Credit: Courtesy Dov Lipman

Rabbi, writer, teacher, and political activist, Dov Lipman is best known for his stint as a Knesset member with the Yesh Atid party from 2013-15, when he became a strong voice for Anglo olim and their families and for Jewish unity.

Ordained at Ner Yisrael and with a Master’s in education from Johns Hopkins, Lipman made aliyah with his family to Beit Shemesh in 2004. He is the author of seven books and a frequent commentator in a wide range of media.

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This year, besieged by Israelis stranded abroad and family members of olim desperate to enter Israel for important lifecycle events, Lipman mounted a campaign to lobby Israeli officials to moderate the government’s ultra-strict border closures and helped many families navigate the red tape. He has continued to use his contacts to push for sane, humane, better-executed policies.

The Jewish Press spoke to Lipman about Israel’s fragile new government, the recent fighting with Hamas, and the effects of corona-related travel restrictions on Israel-Diaspora relations.

After four elections and endless political maneuvering, Israel finally has a new government. Do you think this patchwork of diverse parties with a bare minimum of 60 seats will last?

I think it can go one of two ways: Either it will break apart very quickly or it will last a long time. Either [the parties] will find a way to manage the differences in ideologies, with all sides putting aside their agenda items that conflict with the others’, or they will be going against one another constantly and it will break apart quickly.

You served with Yair Lapid as a member of Yesh Atid in the Knesset. What do you think of his joining forces with Naftali Bennett and the Arab parties and agreeing to a rotation deal as prime minister? What main interests does he have at heart?

I left Yesh Atid three years ago and now have the luxury of being apolitical. But I am still in touch with the people there and am happy to see good friends taking up important positions – especially Mickey Levy as Knesset Speaker.

People don’t realize that Yair and Naftali were super close during the 19th Knesset, and even before that election in January 2013. They have great trust for one another and will absolutely work well together. This is not a rotation between two adversaries. Their joint interests are truly to focus on socio-economic issues and healing the wounds in Israeli society.

There is just one Arab party in the coalition and [its members] have expressed their desire to work for the benefit of Israeli Arabs, which is a good thing. This will be a test for them. If they focus on nationalistic issues and openly side with the Palestinians and against the Jewish State, then the government won’t last. If they focus on addressing pressing needs in the Arab communities, such as education, health, and fighting crime, then this can work.

What effect will the coalition’s reliance on Arab parties have on Israeli policy in the short and long term? Are you worried about Israel losing ground – literally and figuratively – to the Arabs?

I am bothered by the coalition deal continuing to not enforce illegal Arab construction and think this is a major mistake. However, putting that aside, I think it is a good thing for Arab Israelis to thrive and be happy here. They make up 20 percent of our population, and the more they are happy and productive citizens of the Jewish State, the better for Israel. And Mansour Abbas knows that if he comes through with what the Arab population needs for their daily lives, then he will soar in power politically in the next elections. The Arabs lost a third of their political power this time around because Arab Israelis felt [their politicians] were not working to make their lives better.

Like I said before, if they in any way do things that are hurtful to the State, then the government won’t last and no one will try this type of partnership for a long time – if ever – and terrible damage will have been done to the Arab Israeli population.

Considering the string of fruitless elections and how long it’s taken for a coalition to be assembled, some have called for Israel’s electoral system to be changed. What’s your take?

There is no doubt that the system has to change. I strongly advocate for more of an American model. With all of its flaws, the system of separation of powers and checks and balances is brilliant. I worked on this issue during the 19th Knesset, starting with exploring a plan to divide Israel into 60 regions and have half the Knesset elected by regions. Regional representation is desperately needed. However, the Knesset would have to take action to make electoral reform happen, and the majority do not want to see changes because they could lose their power. This is a shame. In the late 1960s, David Ben-Gurion left the Labor party because he believed Israel needed electoral reform and the party didn’t support this. The time has most certainly come but, sadly, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Naftali Bennett used to be synonymous with the right wing, particularly the religious Zionists. Now that he’s allied himself with left-wing and Arab parties, where does that leave the religious Zionist camp? Do you think right-wing voters are going to shift further right in the next election?

Bennett is still very much right-wing – even more than Likud and Netanyahu. When Netanyahu brought Ehud Barak on as his defense minister in 2009, did that mean he aligned himself with the Left? How about when he made Tzipi Livni his justice minister in 2013? Avi Nissinkorn his justice minister in 2019? How about when Yitzchak Shamir formed a government with Shimon Peres in 1984? Did that mean Shamir aligned with the Left? We have a parliamentary system which requires coalitions. Bennett gave Meretz the health and environment ministries – not defense or justice. So he has not shifted ideologically.

Having said that, Bennett has lost a majority of his support base and it will be hard for him to regain that and come back with political strength in the next election. The Religious Zionist party will likely get most of his voters for [its] unwillingness to sit with Ra’am, and Betzalel Smotrich will be the new leader of that camp.

With Biden and the Democrats holding the reins in the U.S. right now, and a left-leaning government taking over in Israel, do you share the concern many Jews are feeling right now about Israel’s future?

I have zero concern about Israel’s future. First, I don’t see this as a left-leaning government. I see it as a government that is equal between Right and Center-Left – that is how the coalition agreement was structured.

Second, there is a lot of rhetoric out there about “the evil Left,” but I know the personalities involved. Even if I disagree with them ideologically, they are not bad people who are looking to harm Israel, and I think the rhetoric plays into a lot of the fears.

Finally, let’s be honest: G-d runs the show here in Israel. There is no other way to explain this story. Therefore, Israel will not only endure but will continue to thrive regardless of which human is running it.

Israel just came out of Operation Guardian of the Walls – for all intents and purposes, a war with Hamas. Despite the cease-fire, nobody believes it’s really over. What effect will Netanyahu’s ouster and the turnover in the Knesset have on the defense front? Do you think it’s possible for Israel to ever get out of this holding pattern and rout Hamas once and for all?

To the first part of the question, my answer is: Zero. The thought that Netanyahu is the only one who can secure Israel is absurd. Bennett and Lapid will be at least as strong, and possibly even stronger.

Can Israel rout Hamas? Of course it can. But do you know how many IDF soldiers will be killed and how many will be captured alive in order to do this? You don’t want to know. It’s easy for people to sit back and say Israel should destroy Hamas, but when you learn what is involved, it is not so simple.

So, given the fact that there is no other option, there is a logic that says we will live under the threat of missile fire and sadly, Israelis will be killed as a result, but the numbers don’t compare to how many we will lose if we go to eliminate Hamas. Really not even close – by the hundreds.

And let’s say we pay that price and destroy Hamas. Who leads the Gaza Strip at that point? Israel? Do we now want to control the education, health, etc., of two million Palestinians in Gaza? And if Israel doesn’t take control, which new terrorist group takes over? There is no simple solution.

Global media coverage of the conflict has been so horribly slanted. In particular, you’ve spoken out about the absurdity of using numbers of casualties on each side as a measuring rod of victimhood. With antisemitism running rampant, do you think more and better hasbara from Israel could or would make any difference?

There are wonderful hasbara and Israel education organizations doing great work. One of the leaders, StandWithUs, just celebrated 20 years of incredible accomplishments in this realm. I worked for an organization called HonestReporting which does great work exposing the media falsehoods and hypocrisy. And there are many others. The Israeli government can do a better job in telling our story and I hope this new government will make this a priority.

I have been blessed to speak to delegations from all around the world visiting Israel and also to travel worldwide to speak on behalf of Israel. It took me a number of years to accept this conclusion, but I now understand that a lot of the anti-Israel sentiment is antisemitism. There is no other way to explain it when you analyze the facts with intellectual honesty. Make no mistake about it – anti-Zionism is antisemitism and I have been very outspoken about this.

Baruch Hashem, the coronavirus has faded in Israel. But this year, with all the hardships caused by Israel’s super-strict, constantly changing travel restrictions, which you referred to “a nightmare” and “a case study in bureaucratic malfeasance,” you became an unofficial ombudsman for Anglo-Israelis stranded abroad. How successful were your lobbying efforts for families separated by the border closures?

I think it is important for everyone to understand that Israel’s leaders saw protecting Israel from Covid as their number-one responsibility. Thus, when they made the travel rules it was with what is best for Israel in mind. I fully support rules related to corona. But our leaders failed in three realms.

One, they could have protected Israel with strict enforcement of quarantine while allowing Israelis, especially new olim, to have their families here with them – especially for happy occasions.

Two, they did not have the infrastructure in place to deal with the rules – staff at the consulates and Misrad Hapnim [Interior Ministry] to review requests and issue approvals in a timely manner. This problem continues today. This is inexcusable. Not a day goes by without me hearing the stress and sadness of families who have to wait for the last second before their flights to hear if they have approval, and many miss or cancel their flights because no approvals arrived. The system is totally broken and this is unfair.

Three, now that we have a successful vaccine, thank G-d, there is no reason for the rules to be as strict as they are today. I recognize that people can forge vaccination statements, and serological testing is needed to prove that people are vaccinated, but a system can be arranged for this to be done quickly and efficiently.

I am also proud to announce that I have established a new organization called Yad L’Olim. We will help olim with all of their needs and challenges, including corona travel, provide new olim with native Israeli mentors, and lobby the ministers and the Knesset for policy changes to help olim – regarding corona travel and many other policies that need to change to help and support olim. Our website is www.yadlolim.org. Please use it to reach out to us for assistance and to help support our efforts.

When do you envision travel and tourism in Israel returning to any kind of normal?

I hope that will come soon – perhaps within the next few weeks. We are working hard to convince our leaders – especially now with new ministers – to make this happen.

With antisemitism in the U.S. at a level and of a kind most American Jews of this generation have never seen before, do you think there will be any significant or lasting aliyah boom? Is Israel ready for it?

Israel is always ready for aliyah. But I don’t want people to make aliyah because of the rise in antisemitism. I hope that Jews around the world will make aliyah because Israel is the land which G-d has given to the Jewish people. How many times does the Torah [refer to Israel as] “the land that G-d has given to you as an inheritance”? It’s over 50 times in Sefer Devarim alone! So come and enjoy the inheritance which G-d has given to you.

If one cannot make aliyah right now because of life circumstances, then raise your children to make aliyah and then join them when you retire. This is the most incredible story in world history – a people returning to their indigenous homeland after 2,000 years of being scattered and persecuted all around the world. And not only have we returned but, despite being surrounded by enemies who have wanted and sought to destroy us, with G-d’s help we have built a thriving, remarkable country. Don’t you want to be part of this story and link your destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people which is in Israel?

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Ziona Greenwald, a contributing editor to The Jewish Press, is a freelance writer and editor and the author of two children's books, “Kalman's Big Questions” and “Tzippi Inside/Out.” She lives with her family in Jerusalem.