Dov Lipman will be coming to the U.S., his birthplace, this week for the first time without an American passport. As a precondition for joining the Israeli government as a member of Knesset, he had to renounce the American citizenship he has held for all of his 41 years. As he told the Times of Israel, he cried at that ceremony where he had to say, "I renounce my U.S. citizenship with free will and without coercion."
Lipman spoke to The Huffington Post via Skype on April 3 about his upcoming U.S. speaking tour, his career shift from teaching to politics, his own plans and those of his party, Yesh Atid, for his time in the Israeli Parliament.
The Parliament that was elected in January is a unique one. According to Lipman, of the 120 members elected, 48 (more than one third of the total) are new to the Knesset (Parliament). All of the 19 members of his own party are new legislators as well. There was a special "Knesset school" before the session began for all the new lawmakers to teach them about their roles. Lipman is himself haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and one of two rabbis elected with his party. The party itself is something of a unique amalgam, headed by Yair Lapid, a veteran television journalist and son of well known Israeli politician of the Shinui party, Tommy Lapid. Lapid crafted his list carefully to include members from a variety of demographic groups: English speakers living in Israel, Ethiopians, secular, religious, disabled and fully abled. For Lipman as a religious Jew to join a secular party has been an experience, on all sides.
"Basically we have said that we agree on about 80 percent" of the issues and that the consensus "allows us to move forward. On 20 percent, let's have dialogue and discussion," and for "all difficult issues we will sit and work them out."
This is the first Israeli coalition government in a long while not to have been formed with the aid of ultra-Orthodox parties, and MK Lipman, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew elected as member of a secular party, has a unique role to play. Lipman himself is a moderate haredi Jew. He feels that "haredi political parties do not represent the entire haredi population," and have a "more extreme approach to Orthodox and haredi Judaism" than he is comfortable with. He speaks of the importance of being "someone who supports our family with dignity," citing the traditional wording of the ketubah, the Jewish marriage document and says that Jews have "always been people who were well educated, well versed in science and mathematics," and would like to see more of that in the Ultra Orthodox community in Israel.
To this end, he removed his children from the local schools in Beit Shemesh because he wanted them "to have options." He explained that he felt it was "not fair to our children to be in a system that wasn't going to give them the general studies they need to succeed professionally." He said of his teenage son that, "he learns so much Torah, it is remarkable, but also general studies and ball and music. He can be a huge Torah scholar but have every opportunity for career and army service." Lipman, unlike some other haredi Jews, feels that this is "not contradiction, complement one another." For him the goal of the haredi educational system should be to do the same as the religious Zionist framework, to "be part of the Jewish people and broader Israeli society and to join the workforce. "
He wants to be an advocate for an education and climate where the "level of Torah scholarship does not suffer, or level of religiosity" but to create a group that is both "fervently Orthodox and Torah scholars, but has a role to play in the work force and serve country with pride." For him in his quest to put haredim to work the "starting point" is that the community is "struggling with poverty." He says that in a community with averages of 8 to 10 children per family, "how many are cut out to study Torah" on a full time basis? His hope is to show the community that it is possible to be fervently Orthodox and have other outlets, that it is not "all or nothing."
Lipman's committee assignment in the Knesset is on a task force to help haredim enter the work force. He wants this to be "basically a lobbying force in the Knesset to help haredim in the work force, bring together companies, haredi groups." In this venture he is working with co-chairman Erel Margalit, of the Labor party, whose background in high tech. Lipman is "looking forward to the committee's kick off event in a few weeks" because he sees a big part of the role he can play in the Knesset as "helping with transformation" to the work force.
Lipman's rhetoric of moderation extends to other areas that have been contentious in the haredi world as well, one being the status of women. As eight of the nineteen members of Yesh Atid are are female, the Huff Post was curious how an ultra Orthodox rabbi views the role of women in public life. Lipman's response was revealing.
"We have to separate between two things, halacha [Jewish law] and way things have been done. The latter is not ironclad, can be adjusted and adapted." He went on to cite what he sees as the "classic example" of this in the education of women in the Jewish world and the opening of the Beis Yaakov network of Jewish schools for women under the auspices of Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Cohen. Lipman explained that "as world opened doors to women," that if there weren't schools for them, the "system will be lost" so there was "an adjustment." Now Lipman says that "Women are leaders. Women are full and capable" and are "able to be the greatest of leaders." He is glad to have so many women in his party, of the 27 women currently in Knesset, and appreciates "having woman leading the way on these issues." Lipman sees this current role for women, unlike most of his haredi compatriots, as "adapting, not breaking any law" and cited the biblical precedent of the judge Deborah (Judges 4-5) as an example of women's leadership that people "totally comfortable with."
Lipman's first piece of legislation is one that relate to "core Jewish values that people from a broad range of parties can relate around," in this case cruelty to animals. He is trying to pass legislation banning the import of foie gras, which is produced when animals are force fed and their livers are distended. It is already illegal to produce the product in Israel (as in California), and he is beginning the process of forbidding it altogether in his homeland.
When queried as to his views on religion and politics, he said that "religion should be separate from politics but not from the state. We define ourselves as a Jewish state, but also Jewish and democratic state."
"I can't force what I believe on someone else. I can't force something on others in a Jewish and democratic country."
Though Lipman no longer holds an American passport, he see that his "American values" have "given me the opportunity and desire to do this." He says the values he learned in the U.S., such as "tolerance" and being able to "live at peace even if we disagree," have contributed to who he is today. He dislikes the haredi "us vs. them" mentality and speaks fondly of non-Orthodox family members from his father's side of the family, since his father's parents became Orthodox when his father was in high school. He says they are "respectful of us and we are respectful of them. Even if I believe that the other approach is wrong, it is not a negative influence on us." Lipman is looking forward to continuing to use his American values in politics rather than his prior career of education in the future since he has "learned that real change happens in politics." It remains to be seen what other changes than those of his passport will come of Lipman's tenure in the Knesset.
He will be at the 92 Street Y in New York on April 11, among other public events.