Dov Lipman realized something was seriously wrong in his new homeland when he was hit by a rock hurled by a fellow Jew, two months after he, his wife and their four children left their home in Silver Spring, Maryland, and settled in Beit Shemesh. Just eight years later, that very rock has a place of honor on the spanking new desk in his Knesset office.

Lipman, 41, first got interested in national Israeli politics early in 2011, after reading a newspaper interview with then-Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem. A self-styled moderate ultra-Orthodox Jew, Lipman improbably wound up joining the ostensibly secular Yesh Atid party and sensationally entered the Knesset last month as the first native-born American since Meir Kahane in 1984, delivering his maiden speech last week. But he went through tumultuous times in Beit Shemesh en route, making a name for himself as a fighter against Haredi extremism — a fight that cost him his day job.

Here, in his first substantive interview as an MK, Lipman speaks openly about his views on ultra-Orthodox society, describes how the mayor of Beit Shemesh got him fired from a job, and explains why he cried when he lifted his right arm and renounced his US citizenship a few days ago.

Talking to The Times of Israel in what used to be ex-Kadima MK Ze’ev Bielski’s Knesset office, Lipman, an ordained rabbi, also discusses his Hebrew (“I think it’s terrible”), Arab MKs who want to boycott the Israeli national anthem, and the personal attacks he has endured for joining a secular party that Haredi critics say seeks to abolish Torah study (although the Haredi parties now kiss up to him, hoping he can help soften Yesh Atid’s stance on the universal draft issue.)

He makes for an engaging interviewee — speaking earnestly and passionately in his slightly nasal tones. He is direct and pointed in his critique of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox world, and full of optimism about his political party. He’s also well aware of the remarkable circumstances that brought him into the Knesset so smoothly, so quickly: He only met Yair Lapid for the first time last July.

We talked for a long while. Here is the full, lightly edited transcript of our interview. It’s a lengthy read, but we think it’s worth it.

The Times of Israel: You started your political career in Am Shalem [the party Amsalem founded after leaving Shas. Am Shalem ran in the election but failed to pass the electoral threshold.] How did you end up with Yesh Atid, which eventually got you into the Knesset?

Dov Lipman: Believe it or not, the starting point is this: This is a rock that was thrown at me two months after I moved to Israel, by another Jew [He picks up a gray stone, about the size of a golf ball, from his desk.] I’m an educator by trade; I thought I’d be in education for the next 20, 30 years in Israel. I thought that maybe at some point I’d get involved in the Ministry of Education. Not as a politician, but curriculum development, trying to impact the future of Israel that way.

We moved to Beit Shemesh because we wanted to specifically live in a city that had all kinds of Jews. That was the idea: from Haredim through secular and everything in between. That was our focus. I thought it was important for my children to see Haredim and Hilonim [secular Israelis] and Sephardim that are sort of Masorti [traditional] and Ethiopians and Russians. Then that happened [the stone-throwing]. I know it’s only extremists [who do such things]. The average Haredi you see on the street would never be violent. But it happened, and there wasn’t an outcry, like oh, Jews stone other Jews. I realized that we have major problems within our society. That was an epiphany for me.

What exactly happened?

I was sitting in my office at home and I heard a commotion. I went outside and there were three police cars on the street corner. I went up to one of the policeman and said, “What’s going on?” He said: “Run. Run!” I said, “Why should I run?” And before I had a chance to even run, the hailstorm of rocks started flying down on us. There was a protest going on about graves [that were supposed to be moved] somewhere. Not in Beit Shemesh, somewhere else. The [Haredi] extremists who were protesting were blocking the road. So the police came to get them off the road and other people started stoning the police, because the police were doing this. It was irrelevant to my life or to Beit Shemesh. But I got hit. I got hit in the leg by the rock and I was bleeding. It made a big impact on me. I put [the rock] on my desk that night. I’d never imagine that I’d put it on my Knesset desk but I always want to remember it, because that’s what drove me to get involved in all of this.

Dov Lipman, left, on a boat in Ashdod with his wife Leah (standing, in black) and his family (photo credit: Courtesy Leah Lipman)

Dov Lipman, left, on a boat in Ashdod with his mother (standing, in black), his wife (in pink) and his children (photo credit: courtesy Leah Lipman)

So I got involved in Beit Shemesh a little bit. There was a deputy mayor, Shalom Lerner, who speaks English, so I went to his office. And I remember: I was literally trembling to walk into City Hall. [Laughs.] Trembling — I was going to meet the deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh. I went in and he said, “How can I help you?” I said, “I actually want to help you.” He said to me — I’ll never forget this — he said that all day all he has is people either demanding things of him or complaining. He was so pleased that someone finally came in and said, Can I help?

So he started giving me little projects to work on, and I tried to always gear them towards unity or strengthening Jewish values. So that got me involved in politics a little bit. As I got involved on that level, I started realizing how bad our problems really were, how corrupt things were, how everything is controlled for politics. Everything. In our city and our state. I started becoming an activist, because I started realizing we had major problems.

What kind of stuff were you horrified by?

For example, I discovered that there was a secular school in Ramat Beit Shemesh that they want to close. That’s something that, living in my community, I would have never even known about. It’s a secular community; it’s not my community per se. But because I was involved I heard about it, I learned about it, I read the information. It was just unjust. It was just for the sake of getting them out of there. So I got involved. As a religious ultra-Orthodox Jew I got involved to help them out and joined forces with the secular community to try to win.

The Ethiopians — that was a big thing for me. To see the degree of discrimination they were experiencing, especially in Beit Shemesh. That speaks to me. I was in yeshiva here when Operation Solomon took place in 1991 [airlifting 15,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel over a single weekend]. And I went every day from my yeshiva to volunteer, just to help them out, on their first few days in the country. Their story speaks to me. I saw them then with their hopes for an amazing new life — I mean, they thought it was the redemption. They literally thought they were coming to biblical times. And to see them now and how they’re suffering… I get very involved.

How are they suffering? What do you see among the Ethiopians in Beit Shemesh?

In Beit Shemesh itself you see it in terms of the schools. There are actually separate nursery schools for them, not giving them the chance to really become part of the broader society. You see the lack of support that they need, just in the home, educationally. Homework, things that their parents can’t provide for them. There are so many things we can do, if we’re creative, to help them. It’s not on the radar screen.

That’s the biggest thing: discrimination can be very proactive, it can also be very subtle. You have an entire community living there and they are impoverished; the parents aren’t educated, and no one is saying: “Okay, it’s our job as Jews in the State of Israel to take care of these Jews we brought here and get them what they need.”

I got involved in the [mayoral] campaign. I was actually Shalom Lerner’s campaign manager. That was my first official role in politics. We lost. But there’s a story that happened in the course of the campaign that impacted me greatly and relates to Yesh Atid and a lot of other things. It was basically neck-and-neck, the elections. It wasn’t clear who was going to win. But the main competition was a Shas candidate, Moshe Abutbul. That would be a major statement for Beit Shemesh, if we were to move over to having a Haredi mayor. I am not against the idea of it, the question is just… who is the Haredi mayor? You can have Haredi leaders who are wonderful. The issue is not whether you are Haredi, the issue is: are you here for everybody?

A week before the elections, [Shas party spiritual leader] Rav Ovadia Yosef came to Beit Shemesh for a campaign rally. I went to be a fly on the wall. I was sitting there in the gymnasium; there were thousands of people, secular people, Sephardim, in old Beit Shemesh. Rav Ovadia Yosef came in and, I heard [what he said] with my own ears: “If you vote for Moshe Abutbul next week, you’ll get the World to Come.”

At that moment, I realized we [in the Lerner campaign] lost. I can’t offer that [the World to Come] to anybody [laughs.] And we lost. People who are not Haredi, who are not even religious, are going to vote Shas. Next week, sure enough, close to 5,000 not-observant people in Beit Shemesh voted for Abutbul, and the difference was 4,000 votes between us. That just showed me the depth of what I view as corrupt, between religion and politics in the country. I just felt that it’s one thing to say we’re for religion and state in Israel. I get that — it has to be a Jewish country. But this should be not place for religion or that kind of perspective in the political realm.

Shalom [Lerner] lost and things quickly started turning very extreme in the city. Once you start labeling a city a Haredi city, even when it’s not — there’s not even a majority of Haredim — but you ask the average person on the street, they’ll all tell you, “Oh Beit Shemesh is Haredi,” and it’s not accurate. But that gave the extremists the ability to really flex their muscles. I just started seeing the things that were happening: more violence. Not rocks, per se, but a friend of mine got a threatening letter because he had a television in his house. So I got involved and dealt with that.

You yourself had issues with Moshe Abutbul, when you were a teacher at Yeshiva Reishit Yerushalayim.

Yes. This is not something I talk about all the time, but I did lose my job in Reishit due to interference from the mayor. That did happen.

I don’t blame the yeshiva for anything, they were put in a tough position. The mayor basically created a scenario where I had to choose between being active or continuing being a rabbi in the yeshiva. In the end, things work out, so we’re fine with that [laughs.] [At the time, in early 2011, Abutbul denied any involvement, saying, “Lipman's irritating claims are illogical and a product of his imagination only.” Abutbul also said that he regrets Lipman’s dismissal from his post and added: “I hope that Dov Lipman finds a new place of work and I'm even willing to help him to do so through the municipal employment headquarters.”]

Did Mayor Abutbul call to congratulate you when you were elected to the Knesset?

He called a few days later. They also put some advertising in the local newspapers. He brought up this whole issue again. He said, “You see, according to Lipman I caused him to lose his position and now look what I did for him.” I invited him already to come here [to the Knesset]. I am waiting for his response. I think it’s important, I’m the first MK in the history of Beit Shemesh. I didn’t know that before the elections, but the day after, people are just euphoric and they are expecting a lot from me. So I want to meet with him and see how I can help and what I can do in this role.

Then things really built up to the point where we had the story last year with Orot [Banot], which was obviously for me personally a very defining few months. [Orot Banot is an Orthodox high school in Beit Shemesh that was at the center of violent conflicts between the city’s extremist Haredi and modern-Orthodox communities. After it was published that extremists spat on a young girl, the story -- and Lipman’s activism -- made international headlines.]

I saw these extremists coming out almost on a daily basis. My daughter doesn’t go to that school. But I went there to try to help. And no one, on a political leadership level, was willing to help us, starting from the police chief to the minister of public security to the Prime Minister’s Office. And it all related to politics: coalitions, politics, and the like. It gave me a real clear vision about what’s wrong about Israeli politics and what needs to be fixed about it.

I got involved with Rabbi Amsalem before that. I saw an interview with him. I saw this Haredi rabbi who was saying all these things in which I so believed. It was Shabbat afternoon, and I told my wife: “I’m about to sit down and become angry. Because the headline said something about a Shas MK. So I thought I’d get angry. Then I started reading and said, Oh my gosh, every step of the way, in every issue he was talking about [what] I really believe in. So I sent a letter to his office. He gave me a meeting. I had about 15 minutes to present, and he said, if you want to help out in Beit Shemesh… I brought him to Beit Shemesh, I got involved and a very close relationship evolved. I’m very close to him. He even offered me a very high spot on his list for the Knesset.

Haim Amsalem in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Haim Amsalem in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The problem was the people around him. I traveled the world with him; I went to America and Ethiopia with him. He’s very open, he has vision. But we’re talking about “Am Shalem,” literally “a broad nation.” So I kept saying, so where are the secular people? Where are the Ethiopians? Where are the Russians? Where are the women? I am telling people that we’re standing for something [in the party], but I don’t see it. “No, it’ll come, it’ll come.” [I started feeling] that it’s not going to come, or it’s not really the goal.

So the people around him were only interested in religious males?

Their goal was to create a replacement for Shas. By the way, I applaud that goal. I think we need a replacement for Shas. It’s just not a party that I can really play a role in. I wasn’t the only one; there were other activists who also left when it became clear… But we didn’t leave in a fight, it was very amicable. I’m sad that he’s not in the Knesset. I think he has a lot to offer and I will take on a lot of those issues as the leader on those issues. [Lipman is still listed on the Anglos for Am Shalem website as being responsible for the party’s English-speaking division.] They speak to me: first of all, the issue of the Haredim in general. My experience going to a Haredi yeshiva, both in Israel and in America, and seeing in America how we were able to, without a problem, seamlessly, combine our Torah learning with general studies.

I went to Johns Hopkins [University], I have a Master’s in Education, I have semicha [rabbinical ordination] from Ner Israel [Rabbinical College in Baltimore]. Ner Israel produces the same degree of Torah scholars as the Israeli system. You can’t even argue that, “Well, without the general studies somehow… [the Torah would be better]” — it’s just not true. Historically, we’ve always been people who study the wisdom of the world, all the great rabbis. Going to work is a major ideal; it’s not a minor ideal. If you look at the sources it’s so clear that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. With army [service] it gets more complicated. I obviously support it but I can understand some of the fears. So create another system where they can serve in some other way. The idea of service certainly is a part of who we are.

I certainly see a direct link between the extremism in Beit Shemesh and the isolationism that comes from that perspective. Meaning, the more you isolate yourself and your children from the rest of the world, that breeds extremism. And that enables an environment where crazy people can come out to the street and do such things. The Haredi community was very upset with me for being on the side of the girls, so to speak. They felt that I was creating this anti-Haredi atmosphere in the country. I feel the Haredi community enables extremists to act the way they do. If it wasn’t so isolated, so unwilling to say “We’re together with the rest of the country” — it’s always us against them. You even hear it now in the coalition talks: it’s us against them.

I really believe that general education, going to work, and serving in the army will help in general with the whole religious scene.

But this community has placed itself where it has precisely because it doesn’t want to interact with the rest of the secular and non-Ultra-Orthodox society. Because it thinks that society is toxic.

Right, that’s where they’re coming from. And if you go back historically, to the Old Yishuv, in their perspective they were here and all of a sudden this secular Zionism came in and they felt they had to circle the wagons — that’s definitely where it’s coming from. But I think that first of all, people on the ground in the Haredi community [when you ask them in closed meetings what they think], they will almost all tell you: “We need to find a way for our children to go to work. They’re starving.” They don’t want to live lives where you are constantly struggling. It’s just not normal to be in that situation, and they know that.

Some leaders — unfortunately they won’t let me reveal their names and hopefully people will know that I’m not making this up — but one in particular said to me: We, Yesh Atid, are the salvation of the Haredi community. We will save the Haredi community from themselves.

One of the Haredi leaders here in the Knesset said that?

Not in the Knesset, in Beit Shemesh. He told me, we [Yesh Atid] are going to save the community from themselves. Meaning, there’s nobody in the community who has the ability to make this happen, just because of the system and the way it’s controlled. But, he said, the only thing that could save it was legislation that requires certain changes. Some will protest it and not do it and not be martyrs but others will rise to the occasion and say: okay, this is what it is. If, in Lakewood, New Jersey [a town with many Haredim], they have general studies, and Satmar [Hasidim] in Monroe, New York [have it too], then they can have it here also. It changes who they are, it just opens them up. The Satmar in New York, okay, so we might disagree ideologically about Israel, and they might do a crazy protest here and there, but they go to work and they function in a society. And that’s something that, long-term, has to happen here as well.

In the former Soviet Union they were persecuted because they were Jews. And they come to Israel and are persecuted because they are viewed as non-Jews — I can’t tolerate that

The conversion issue is also a big issue for me. I was in the former Soviet Union right after it fell and helped prepare kids to come to Israel on aliyah. I was there for a summer. When we were there, we didn’t ask anybody if their parents were Jewish, father Jewish or mother Jewish. They were there as Jews and we prepared them for aliyah. And this is the line that plays in my head all the time: In the Former Soviet Union they were persecuted because they were viewed as Jews. And they come to Israel and they are persecuted because they are viewed as non-Jews — I can’t tolerate that. So I definitely agreed with Rabbi Amsalem about that and the need to deal with conversion in general and to just work and find some kind of a solution to a problem that is only going to get worse and worse if we don’t deal with it.

The Rabbinate in general, the whole approach to religion in the country, what I view as the improper connection between religion and politics — all these issues very much spoke to me. So when I saw that it wasn’t going to work out with my involvement with Rabbi Amsalem, I started looking around a bit. I wasn’t thinking I’d run for Knesset. I was just looking for an ideology, for a party, for somebody who believed in these issues, some kind of a movement just to get involved with.

Yair Lapid was not only not on the radar screen. All that I had thought or heard was negative. [He’s] anti-religious, anti-this, anti-that, no real content — that’s what I had heard. So Alisa [Coleman], who is now my chief of staff, sent me a video of Yair. I call it mandatory viewing, even if you don’t support Yesh Atid — just to understand who he is. It’s Yair Lapid at Kiryat Ono [Academic College]. I watched it and said to myself: Oh my gosh, this is a man who is a secular icon in Israel, openly secular, but first of all has tremendous respect for tradition and our history and where we come from, and why we’re here, but also wants to work together. I viewed it as, here’s the secular side saying, okay, it’s time to work together, here’s our hand. And I felt we had to come and take the other side of the hand.

But first I thought to myself, he’s talking to Haredim at Kiryat Ono. I thought, he’s a politician (even though he wasn’t in politics yet). So I went to hear him speak at a secular moshav. And he said the same message. He said: “If you’re looking for [Lapid's father, former secularist politician] Tommy Lapid — he’s a person whom I love very much, and I miss him — I’m not him.” Then he actually laid out his plans. It was the first time I actually heard them. I heard content. I heard somebody who had really thought about the issues and had actual plans in place to deal with them. So I was sold on it.

I made contact. It wasn’t an organization yet; really it was just Yair and Tami Nasi [who headed the volunteers for the campaign] and a few people around him. I went to meet with Tami and they said, okay, maybe make an event in Beit Shemesh. So I brought him to Beit Shemesh, in someone’s backyard, about 100 people. But a nice cross section of the community. It was an amazing night. That was in July.

So the first time you met Lapid was in July 2012?

Yes, the first time we actually met was July. At that point I had already heard him speak a few times, the whole campaign speech. We arranged to meet afterwards. Again, we weren’t talking at that point about me running for Knesset. The idea was that he had to trust that he can name me as the head of the Beit Shemesh branch. I understood that he wanted to get to know the people, that he can trust them — I’m now the head of the Beit Shemesh branch, anything I say in a certain level reflects on the party. So we talked. It was an amazing conversation. We have a lot in common. His father, whom he was very close to, passed away. My father passed away years ago, I was very close to him and he had a major impact on who I am. And that sort of led us to talk more openly. That broke the ice a little bit. We found a lot of common ground. We started the Beit Shemesh branch.

Do you speak to him in English or in Hebrew?

That night we spoke in Hebrew.

Your Hebrew is perfect?

I think my Hebrew is terrible. I really do. But people are blown away — every interview I do they saw, wow, you’re here eight and a half years, and you’re great. So I run with it. I’m going to work on it more. The biggest thing is that the numbers are all messed up. It’s wrong, meaning I want to change it: because the zachar and nekeva [masculine and feminine] — it’s the opposite of what it should be. So that’s what I always mess up. But I’m totally comfortable getting up and speaking in Hebrew.

US-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, right, and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (photo credit: Yaakov Lederman)

Dov Lipman, right, and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (photo credit: Yaakov Lederman)

Then I started hearing that they [party leaders] were exploring the idea of me running with him and they asked me for my bio and all kinds of background information. And I sent them a lot. At that point a switch went off in my head. They said: “Don’t be modest. Don’t be humble. Sell yourself to us.” So we started that process. And then, on October 17, I had coffee with Yair in Ramat Aviv. He asked to speak in English. That was very interesting, it was a total shift. It was a real heart-to-heart. It was really a very powerful experience. And he offered me to run on the list. He said: “Look into my eyes and make a few promises to me, that you’re not going to…” It’s scary for him to take somebody from my background.

Sum that up. What is your background?

Someone who studied in Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Someone who very much identifies with many of the concerns of the Ultra-Orthodox community, in terms of influence of the outside world and certain things that are foreign to us religiously. That’s part one. But [someone] who has made a transformation and sees himself as part of the world, [so] that one could call me modern Haredi, or moderate Haredi, or Zionist Haredi. That’s a combination that — for someone from the secular world, it would almost be easier to know they’re dealing with an Israeli Haredi. What does that mean [to be a modern Haredi]? When we vote in the party, am I going to vote with the party or, because I’m this combination, am I suddenly going to not vote with the party?

I told Yair something which I believe and that I stick with, and that is: my word is my word. We talked about how difficult it is to be in politics when your word is your word, and we shook hands on it and I didn’t know precisely what number I was going to be [on the Knesset slate] at the time. I knew a general range and it ended up in that range, exactly what he told me.

So we started having meetings as a list, even before it was official. I started getting to know other people [who were running for the Knesset with Yesh Atid], which was really nice for me. First of all Rabbi Shai Piron, who is the number two, who is a religious Zionist rabbi. For me it was reassuring — it showed that everything Yair said was true, about his desire to work with the religious community. That’s a huge statement and a very bold step and one that people were upset with: they took a religious rabbi as his number two. I still wasn’t campaigning, though. I was just that guy who wrote in The Times of Israel about my support for Yair Lapid, and in a few other places, and mentioned it in various presentations but it was never concretized.

On December 2 or 3, we had the official kick-off of the campaign. That was an amazing night. To be standing on that stage, with all these people, with some remarkable backgrounds — Yaakov Peri, former head of the Shin Bet, and Yael German and Meir Cohen, two very successful mayors, and Micky Levi [ex-Jerusalem police chief]. Yair said to the crowd: Look at that stage. He said: This is how Israel should look. This is a cross-section of every population: Ethiopian representation and Russian representation and all saying that we’re going to work together to make this work. That was very powerful for me. Because that’s what I’d been searching for from this moment [Lipman picks up the rock].

Then the campaign started and I was out there, really selling what we believed in. But also getting to know the people on the list. And that’s a really important part of the story. We’ve really become this family, and that’s unusual for Israeli politics. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges along the way. But right now, it’s not about who is getting which ministry, this committee or that committee. I know that people on the outside are probably cynical about it and don’t believe that it’s really true. But it really is true. We really have tremendous unity within the party. I’ve become really close to Micky Levi, he’s become my mentor in all of this. But one of the more unusual relationships is my relationship with Yael German. She’s formerly from the Meretz party, very secular, female, older, and we’ve become very close. We talk openly about things, religion and state issues.

Members of Yesh Atid party respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel aviv on the evening of the Israeli elections on January 22, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)

MKs Dov Lipman, right, and Yael German, center, respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel Aviv on the evening of the Israeli elections on January 22, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)

And it’s been a thrill. The campaign itself was amazing to be part of. My primary role was with the English-speaking community. It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t walking into a receptive audience in most places. People are very skeptical and very doubtful. Even in places doubting my involvement: Is this guy just looking for something? And that was a little bit hard to hear. But I answered every question and I was on Facebook answering everybody’s questions and attacks.

I did not think I’d be elected to office this time. I knew I’d be a part of the party, a big part of the [discussions] with all the Haredi issues. But here we are.

How many people on the list did you get down to?

There’s 120 people on the list but there were 25 at that first meeting. Just to take a step back, Yair announced on Rosh Hashana — I was not a candidate yet — that we’d get 22 seats. There is Mark Mellman, he was our strategist and pollster from America, a religious guy. He said to us, at the first campaign meeting: “If you follow what I’m telling you… Just stick to this message. There will be moments where you are going to feel that no one’s hearing it, no one’s listening, there’s going to be lows and highs — just stick to it. This is what works in campaigns. People need to hear your message. And we had it all along: We’ve come to make change, new politics instead of old politics, here are your five things we want to address in the government.

Please run through the five.

Oh boy, it’s been a while since I said them [laughs.]

And of course you don’t need to mention them ever again, now that you’ve been the big winner of the election…

We’re in office, now, right? [Laughs.] My children can say them, by the way. Equality in national service, which is obviously the big issue now in coalition talks. That’s number one. Number two is an overhaul in education. And with my education background, I really studied that, and I really believe in it, totally. It shocks people when they hear what we want to do in education, but we can totally get things back on track. Number three is housing reform: just to go back to the point where army veterans and young couples who go to university and are not working can actually purchase a home. Those are the three really big ones. The next one was dealing with just monthly economy issues. We have a plan for reducing gas and electricity and water within the current budget. Number five: electoral reform and change of system of government.

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman sitting in the plenum hall of the Knesset introduction day for new parliament members, February 03, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman sitting in the plenum hall of the Knesset during an introduction day for new parliament members, February 03, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

You still want to change the system of government? It seems to have worked quite well for you…

[Laughs.] Some of the things we’re asking for hurt us. I mean, Yair Lapid is standing up and saying we want only 18 ministers [compared to 28 in the last government]  — that hurts us right now. We’re in a position where we can demand who-knows-what. It really is sincere. It really is about making these changes. I left my career, people left their careers to get involved with this, to make a difference. We’re not career politicians and we really want to do it. But you’re right, it does work against us a little bit.

Can you describe how you felt on Election Day, when you started hearing the rumors that Yesh Atid could be the big surprise and that maybe you’d have a shot at making it to the Knesset yourself?

It started the night before. In general, I knew we would get more than the polls were saying [which was about 11-12 seats]. It was clear to me. I didn’t think we would get 17, I’m honest about that. It was clear to us [through] internal polling, first of all, and just in general. The night before, someone sent me a link from a news story, which said that my spot had become ‘realistic’. So I said, okay, I’m going to run with this. And I actually publicized it and for the first time in the entire campaign began to talk about myself. It was never about “Find a way to help me get me in the Knesset,” it was really about Yesh Atid. But I said, listen, it has all of a sudden become…

But more than that, the night before I went to the Kotel. Because I knew that I was within range. I didn’t only pray for the party and Yair, I poured my heart out. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the opportunity is here, I can do so much.’ I really felt that way. So I sent a text to Yair. I said, “I’m at the Kotel and I’m praying for you and praying for the party, and I wanted you to know that. And, you know, obviously praying for myself and the future of the party.” He wrote back to me: “With you, it’s already done; now I’m now working on Toporovsky.” Boaz Toporovsky was number 18. That’s what he wrote. I got it, I was like, oh my gosh, this is everything… You have a real feel when you’re out there and you see things happening.

‘Becoming a Yesh Atid candidate wasn’t easy to do. It led to a lot of personal attacks; even good friends question what exactly you’re doing’

The next day was an incredible day, Election Day. We got up early and I voted and then just, everywhere I went, you really felt the momentum. And it’s not just, oh I’m from Yesh Atid — you saw that everywhere I went. Likud-Beytenu was dead. Dead. In terms of the environment. Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) was the only other one that was similar, in terms of, that you felt a certain excitement. But with the Yesh Atid crowd you just felt it, everywhere. We were first in Beit Shemesh, and then we made a tour in Jerusalem and then I went to Modi’in and then back to Beit Shemesh. Everywhere we went — I just knew something was happening.

I got a call at five o’clock in the afternoon from the headquarters in Tel Aviv. And they said, “Dov, when you come to the headquarters tonight, the press is going to be all over you. Because right now we’re clear at 17.” They figured the last person [would attract special attention]. I got prepared, they gave me a few things to talk about. And they were right: I walked in and it was crazy, how the press was so excited. The story was just a remarkable story. They told me before [first exit polls] were put up on the screen that it would be higher and that I would be off the hook and that Ronen Hoffman, at No. 19, would get to do all the press. [And so it proved.]

But it was an incredible feeling. It was a feeling of, you took a jump in your life. It wasn’t an easy jump to make. Both supporting Yesh Atid wasn’t easy to do [and] becoming a candidate wasn’t easy to do. It was a decision that led to a lot of personal attacks; even good friends question what exactly you’re doing. But it was something that I really, really believed in. I just really believe in working together, I believed in [Lapid's] plans on all these issues. And to see that come together and reach a point where now we’re in a position to do it — that night was just euphoric.

We had a meeting that night, the list together, we talked about certain things. It took a day or two to really grab my hands around what this means, to be a member of Knesset. And now we’re here.

Let’s talk about the Haredi draft and the sharing of the burden. You represent the Haredim in Yesh Atid and we saw you already debated other Haredi party members on the Knesset channel. Do they take you to the side and tell you that you’re one of us, and try to persuade you to soften Lapid’s stance a bit?

There’s been a lot of that. What you described just now, I think you’re the first reporter that asked me that. But I’ve been getting calls from Haredim from the day after the election. It started, actually, the morning after the election: I was on Kol Beramah, Haredi radio. During the campaign, Kol Beramah were vicious to me. I did interviews with them, and they were just so sharp and so strong, and I was fine with it. The next day [after the elections] they said, “Kvod Harav hachaver Knesset [Your honor the rabbi and MK]…”

Their tone totally changed. I realized that something was going to change in terms of how they viewed me, or used me. That’s what happened. Haredi people, leaders of different parties started calling me. No MKs, but their aides. Their people contacted me. “We just sit, we should talk, we should this, we should that.” My response to them is: We have a coalition team. They’re not political, not looking for a ministry for themselves, they know our values — they’re taking care of our coalition discussions. And that’s it.

Are you a part of these discussions? Right now everyone’s talking about drafting the Haredim, and you are the party’s Haredi representative.

My part in it is to say that: I believe that our platform is the compromise. That’s what the Haredi parties don’t seem to understand. They’re like: you have to compromise. If Yair and Yesh Atid, if we were saying that tomorrow, we want to take everybody out of the Beit Medrash [study hall] and go to the army, then I could understand the Haredi community coming and saying, “We can’t, you’ve got to compromise.” But the platform itself is the compromise.

The platform says that first of all, for the next five years, almost nothing happens. For the next five years, a Haredi who wants to work can just go to work. Leave yeshiva or kollel [yeshiva for married men] and go to work. There are estimates that close to 40 percent would leave.

What’s preventing them from doing that right now?

According to the law, if you in the age for draft, you can’t legally go to work. The age is 30 or 32.

And you want to change that law?

For right now. Because the idea behind that is: Free the people who want to go to work, who have families. They’ll join one of these courses and within six months they’ll have the ability to sustain their families. You’d think the Haredi political leadership would say, wow, this Yair Lapid is really [great]… Over the course of these five years, our plan says, we have to build programs, programs in the army that really suit the Haredi population’s needs. And for those who are aren’t going to serve in the army — we know there are those who aren’t going to serve in the army — we have to have national service programs, which, again, suit their needs.

In all those programs we are saying, You can have Torah together with it. No one is saying: no learning. That’s one of the things that, by the way, the last few days, have been burning inside of me. I was on the radio yesterday and they said: “How can you, Dov Lipman, as a Haredi rabbi, raise your hand to vote for a law that says that only 400 people can study Torah?” I said: “Stop saying things that are lies. That’s not what our law will say.” The law might say that only 400 per year exclusively study Torah. But the programs for the army — you have yeshivat hesder right now for the religious community — [combining yeshiva study with army service]. They’re not learning Torah?

Why are you saying not learning Torah? They’re the ones who are not compromising. If there is anybody here who is not compromising it’s the ultra-Orthodox political leadership. I believe in our plan. I believe it’s the compromise. I believe that we will stick to it.

You will stick even to the number of 400 annual army exemptions for outstanding scholars?

I don’t think it will be 400. I want to be the one to write that test for the 18-year-old. The test that is going to decide which 18-year-olds can study Torah day and night. I want to write that test. It’ll be less than 400.

Your point being that fewer than 400 people are skilled enough to pass the test?

So skilled and so steeped in learning and so love learning…

Do you think it would be justified to actually have fewer than 400 exemplary students?

Yes.

And what about the Haredi argument that the whole Torah world was decimated by the Holocaust and we need to build up scholarship and it will take time and that we need to over-invest in that?

That argument made sense in 1950, in 1960. It doesn’t make sense today when we rebuilt Torah.

Is this a golden age of Torah study?

Yes, it’s flourishing — but I don’t think you have to define that by how many are exclusively learning. I think it’s defined by Torah being available to the masses and the structures that are there. It’s all there, but you can combine it together with other pursuits. If I, in Ner Israel, was able to study as much as I learned there and walk out with a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins… I’m not brilliant. I’m not. I worked hard. It can be done here together with army service, with national service.

Ecstatic scenes at Yesh Atid's headquarters Tuesday night as the TV exit polls are broadcast, with putative MK Dov Lipman, bearded with kippa, at center (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Ecstatic scenes at Yesh Atid’s headquarters Tuesday night as the TV exit polls are broadcast, with putative MK Dov Lipman, bearded with kippa, at center (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

If we think about what we’re asking from, it’s clear to me that they’re not coming from a perspective of what’s really best for Torah. And I’m comfortable saying that. They’re coming from a controlling, corrupt perspective… Think about it for a minute: what happens if the system as we have it now doesn’t exist? Why do you need Degel Hatorah [one of the parties making up the United Torah Judaism faction] anymore? Why do you need Shas anymore? What we’re basically saying is that there’s no need for you to be there anymore to protect your little sectarian interest, and that’s devastating to their whole infrastructure. I don’t think it’s best for Haredi youth. I think what’s best is exactly what our plan says, and that’s why I’m willing to go with this until the end. And I think that we will go to the opposition if our demands on this issue aren’t met.

How did we get into this situation of mass full-time Torah study, and vast numbers of Haredi males not working? This is anti-rabbinical, this is not authentic Orthodox Judaism.

Right. I’ll give you one line that happened during the campaign and then I’ll answer your question. I was on Haredi radio and I quoted the Rambam [medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides]. This is the same Maimonides that we’re sitting there [in yeshiva] and analyzing every little nuance of what he says about marriage. The Rambam says: “A person who decides to study Torah and not work and force other people to support him, that person disgraces Torah, disgraces God’s name and has no portion in the world to come.” This is coming full circle to Rav Ovadia and the elections. That’s what Maimonides says. If somebody is rich and wants to sit and learn Torah, fine. So what does the guy [interviewing me] say to me? He says to me: “You want to tell me that you’re relying on the Rambam?” That’s a quote. He says, “That was hundreds of years ago.”

Unbelievable.

I said: “That says it all.” If you have an answer for me, okay. But you have no answer, and your answer is, how can you rely on the Rambam from hundreds of years ago? I told my wife later: we are not a hundred percent right. We are a thousand percent right. That was the moment where it just all came together for me.

How did we get here? The rest of Israel is to blame. Because both right-wing and left-wing governments throughout have given the ultra-Orthodox parties whatever they wanted because they needed to form a coalition to advance their own [interests] — that’s how we got here.

But why do the Haredi communities choose this fate?

This whole Da’as Torah phenomenon, where the rabbi decides everything in my own life, is something that I think is also foreign. People ask me: which rabbi did I ask before I joined Yair Lapid. I made a decision. I spoke to some people for advice, I did talk it over with some people because I wanted to make sure, but I didn’t ask for a psak [religious ruling]. It’s not halacha [religious law]. Halacha is: is this pot kosher or not kosher? If you don’t know the halacha yourself, you ask the rabbi for that. The idea that the control over our community, and this degree of getting involved in politics — we never had this before.

Isn’t that a much more longstanding issue, though? That’s why communities in Eastern Europe didn’t leave before the Holocaust, because “the rabbi” told them to stay.

In the Hasidic community I think you had it more. If you study history, a lot of this started happening during the Enlightenment, where the Hatam Sofer [coined the phrase] that chadah assur min-HaTorah [the Torah forbids novelties]. That’s where all this originates from, for sure. I just feel that the lack of willingness to study basic history and understand what our rabbis used to be like — the average kid in a Haredi school doesn’t know who the Rambam was.

So what do they study in yeshiva?

They’re studying Talmud, for the most part in a very hypothetical, theoretical type of way. They don’t, say, take the Tanach [Bible] and understand who King David was… King David is my guy [laughs]… He was a warrior, a politician who had to deal with coalitions and struggles and even moral struggles in his life, and crises of faith. These are real issues and we don’t teach those to our children.

Please elaborate. What do they study all day in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Israel?

They’ll open up a Talmud and they’ll read a line in the Talmud. And then they’ll read the Rashi and then they will read the Tosfot and then they will read the Rishonim on it and then the Aharonim on it and they’ll spend a day analyzing that line of the Talmud and all the commentaries, and that’s it.

About what?

Primarily two areas of the Talmud: Nashim and Nezikin: Women-related issues and damages. Those are two primaries issues that the yeshivas deal with. I would have a much harder time making my argument if we saw tens of thousands of the most brilliant Talmudic scholars who mastered every possible classic text and were writing great works of new thought and ideas. I’d still argue my case, but it’d be harder for me. But we don’t see that. You don’t see the results.

You’d say they are studying for study’s sake, obscure alleys that have no relevance for living a good live?

Right. There are times when the study of the Talmud would cross over to that. And maybe, all of a sudden in the middle of the page, you’ll have a statement that relates to what you are learning about being a nice, good person. But that’s not the focus of it. The whole notion of Derech Eretz Kadma LeTorah [“The way of the land comes before Torah," Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3] — I don’t see it.

A moment for me that was really powerful was when I studied in yeshiva here, when I was 18. I was in a Haredi yeshiva. They didn’t say the prayer for the [protection of Israel's] soldiers. That’s the first moment when I realized that this [world] is not my home, ultimately. I understood not saying the prayer for the state — if you have that [non-Zionist] ideology. But there are 18-year-old fellow Jews who right now are risking their lives so we can be studying here. Derech Eretz, basic Derech Eretz [a term that can mean making a living or behaving properly]. Why aren’t we praying for them? It’s all politics. We lost our way. We lost our way on these fronts.

Have you had the opportunity to say any of this yet to veteran Haredi legislators?

I’ve not had any kind of real conversation yet with members of Knesset. I participated in a debate [on television] way back in Beit Shemesh last year during the whole Orot Banot story. [United Torah Judaism MK] Yisrael Eichler was at the Channel 2 station, I was at the protest, and we were having a little bit of a debate. And I went after him. I said, “You guys blew it here. Where are our values?” He said, Of course we are against [the violence]. But I haven’t actually talked face to face to understand where they are coming from. I have met with many Haredim in general. I’ve had the conversations both with those who agree with me and with those who don’t agree with me. Those who disagree with me say: “Everything you’re saying makes sense. But that’s not what the Torah giants are saying. And we follow what they tell us.” That’s their answer.

On the other side, I’ve gotten phone calls from many Haredim. They talk to me, they’re so happy that I’m here. And they say we have to have change. Studying Torah day and night is what I went through one year when I was in yeshiva — one year, when I left the Beit Midrash at 1:30 in the morning and was back in the Beit Midrash at 6:30 in the morning. I was just on fire in learning, so to speak. And then after a year — I loved it but you can’t do more of that… It’s not a normal thing for a human being to be studying Torah, full-fledged, day and night. It’s hard to do that. How many kids can really do that?

I met a woman in Bnei Berak, she said: “I have eight sons. Maybe one of them is cut out to really study day and night. So she said, I look at my eight sons, maybe one — I’m not sure about him about him but the other seven for sure not — but I want them to be upstanding Haredi Jews, in terms of their religious observance. But the system won’t let that happen. They’re not studying any general studies; if they go to work they’re viewed as second class.

I think it’s the other way round: The guys who study Torah on the train on the way to work in Tel Aviv every morning are the princes of the Jewish people. They’re the princes of my world. Because they’re in a difficult environment to both work and maintain their [study schedule], but they’re studying and praying on the train… And that’s why I am fully comfortable in Yesh Atid, and I am certainly, from my end, encouraging that we stick this out. And if we have to go to the opposition, we will.

What seems to be coming together now is a coalition with the Haredim, who will not be willing to compromise and you won’t prevail. Is your effort to try to engage that?

I feel that the prime minister has to make a decision on how serious he is about the issue of equality in national service. It’s not a game anymore. Is he going to move forward with legislation or not? if that means choosing between the Haredi parties and our party, whichever way he goes. We never said that we won’t sit with them. We’re just saying that it’s unlikely that they’ll go along with our plan. But the idea of taking our compromise legislation, which is already a compromise, and saying let’s compromise — that’s not acceptable. They’ll [try to] find a way to maneuver it so it’s the status quo. That’s their goal. And we’re not willing to go with that.

The alternative to that being… sitting in the opposition and not achieving anything at all.

Yes, but then he’ll have a government and let’s remember what that government would be: Likud-Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, and Degel Hatorah. I don’t know how long that government is going to last. I think that it’ll kind of teeter and then… I don’t think Bayit Yehudi will do it anyway; that’s their choice. We think we’d just be a strong opposition, we’d be the leaders of the opposition and come back that much stronger. Yair’s father went to the opposition with six seats and came back with 15, in a very influential position.

And then his party [Shinui] fell apart, over night, over a row over who would be number two.

Right, so that’s why Yair took very great pains to build this party based on what he learned from that story. People ask: who are these no-names on the list. That’s right: he took people who had not been aspiring to make it in politics, who believe in something, who want to do something. And that’s going to keep us together. I don’t have a doubt about it.

But isn’t Lapid acting like an arrogant, hubristic young man in declaring that he’ll be prime minister next time?

Had he called a press conference and said: Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be the next prime minister, then I’d agree with you. He was at the end of an interview with Uvda [a popular investigative television program] that followed him the entire campaign, and they asked him a question. I have no problem with the leader of my party saying: Yeah, I want to build this party for the long term, to be the biggest party in Israel and to be prime minister. That’s who I want to be the leader of my party: someone who sees himself in that role, the party growing and becoming the dominant party in the country.

How do you feel about the party not having any democratic infrastructure? He’s the one deciding everything?

I always thought there has to be democracy. We’re a brand-new party with a few members. If we say we open it up to primaries, somebody who has 2,000 great friends, who come in and become members, can take over the party. We said that for the first two Knessets, it’s going to be Yair deciding. And after that it’s going to be primaries, even for the head of the party. So I’m very comfortable with that — provided the primaries we have then are not like the primaries that we see in Likud, for example. There’s someone who I met during the campaign, at debates, who tried to run in Likud… He told me he had people come to him and offer him money for votes. So if our primaries are going to be not that way, I’m very happy with the idea. Yair did it in a way where the party is going to last. I really believe that this is not going to one of those fly-by-night things that come in and disappear.

One more question about the coalition negotiations. Would you be disappointed if Lapid were to take the Foreign Ministry, in light of the fact that he ran a campaign focused on domestic issues?

I’ve become very close to Yair, and I’ll say this: if he takes the Foreign Ministry it’s because he believes that, given the situation, it’s the best thing for the country. Meaning: it’s not a situation of, wow, all of a sudden this door opened up and now I can [take whichever ministerial post I want]… If he believes that given the options and the possibilities, etcetera, that’s the best thing for Israel, that he be in that position, that’s why he would take it. And that’s why I would be totally comfortable with it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen shaking hands with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at the opening session of the 19th Israeli parliament, held at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on February 05, 2013. (photo credit: nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Yair Lapid at the opening session of the 19th Knesset, February 05, 2013. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Which portfolio do you think would be most appropriate for him?

Whatever is best for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish in the country.

What’s your position on the Palestinian front?

Two states for two peoples is the solution on the table for the problem. We can’t ignore the problem. It exists. We’re not saying we can make peace tomorrow. But we have to be negotiating in order to make that happen. Yair gave a very powerful speech in Ariel where he laid out exactly the parameters of how we feel about it. For us, the idea of compromising on the land of Israel is not easy to do. It’s not something that we’re running to do, but it’s something which we understand that we, assuming we come to an internationally backed agreement, would have to do.

It’s not too late, in light of the settlements Israel built? Is there still space, physically, for a Palestinian state?

Yes. That’s not me saying that but Yaakov Peri, whom I talked to a lot about this.

And the fabric of Israeli society and the way the army functions is such that we could actually dismantle dozens of settlements in the course of a peace agreement without ripping the country apart?

It can be done, if it’s done the right way. We can certainly learn the lessons of the [2005] Disengagement [from Gaza] in terms of there being some things that you can do and certain things that should not be done. Yair also has been outspoken about how [poorly] the evacuees have been treated and what infrastructure has been put in place. It has to be a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we have to prepare ourselves for that possibility. Until I heard Yair say it, I didn’t fully understand this — or it somehow touched me when he said it. He said: “Doing nothing, saying that there is no possibility, is looking our children in the eyes and saying, here, the problem is yours, but you’re going to have many more Palestinians attached with you.”

As we say in Yesh Atid, we are not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians. We are looking for a necessary divorce. We need to find a way to separate ourselves from this. Yaakov Peri, who certainly knows the ins and outs of the Palestinian world better than we can imagine, says: it absolutely can be done, and it’s to our advantage to be working towards it.

You sound almost adulatory about Lapid, as though you think he’s really quite extraordinary, and that you wish that he become prime minister of this country because he just might be able to save it. Is that how you feel?

Yeah. I believe he is very special. I believe that he is a passionate Zionist who loves Israel and the Jewish people, who left the cushiest of cushiest jobs anyone can ask for [as a TV anchor], for far less pay, far more grief, far less family time, because he really believes we need to do something that changes the direction of the country. And I do see him in that way. I see him as a human being; obviously people have their flaws as well, as humans. But he’s a leader. He has a vision of where he wants the country to be and that’s what we need.

This is the honeymoon. It’s only going to get worse from here.

I don’t see it that way. Complicated. Difficult. Challenging — I agree with that. But I don’t see it getting worse. Assuming that we stick with our ideology, which is certainly what I believe we will do, I think we should be able to grow. That’s what we’re all about. It’s definitely a new politics, that’s for sure, a fresh politics. Even the way these coalition discussions are going. If you noticed, I wasn’t able to talk to you [before this interview]. Every other party is out there sounding off. We said no, we have our professionals, let them do their jobs. There’s something fresh and new about it.

I went through a major background check before Yair took me on. He wants to make sure that we’re clean. And that’s the goal: something new, and a vision. Where do you want the country to go? It’s not just, we have a party because we’ve been here for many years and we have our institutions. We have a perspective of where we want to go, about religion and state — trying to tackle those issues and get somewhere on conversions. I believe we can come to a comprehensive, broad conversion consensus where everybody compromises a little bit. I don’t think we have to compromise on Halacha. I think we have to follow more lenient opinions on Halacha. But there’s room to get this all done if we’re willing to say: we’re here to do it, now let’s figure out how to make it happen. I think that’s what Yair, more than anything else, has done.

What’s your view on religion and state?

Israel has to be a Jewish state.

With prayer services at the beginnings of Knesset sessions [as you demanded earlier this year in an op-ed]?

Yeah. A Jewish state…. that’s what I believe makes us the State of Israel.

What about non-Jewish members of Knesset? Would they be allowed to leave the room?

I personally — I’m not speaking for the party now — have no problem with a non-Jewish member of parliament who says, I don’t feel comfortable being in the plenum when there is this prayer. That’s fine from my perspective.

What about Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem? Arab MKs quickly left the plenum before it was sung [at their swearing-in ceremony earlier this month]?

I don’t have a problem with it, if it’s not out of protest but if it’s out of understanding of a difficult situation for them. Do you see the difference? If it’s a protest — we are a Jewish state that is opening up to democracy and giving you a chance to be part of it. I totally am sensitive to the fact that you have a difficulty hearing about the 2,000 years of aspirations [of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland]. I respect that. Leaving not out of a protest but out of an arrangement, that’s something which I am totally comfortable with. But when it’s out of a viciousness…

Which was it last week [when Balad MK Hanin Zoabi and others left the plenum after being sworn in]?

I saw viciousness. To stand up after you [take the oath of office and] say, “I so commit!” and walk out… I was in the room; it was done in a very flamboyant kind of way.

Arab parliament member Hanin Zoabi sits in the court room of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 05, 2012. Zoabi came to plea for a revocation of her diplomatic passport which was taken away from her a few months ago due to her participation in the Gaza aid flotilla. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

MK Hanin Zoabi (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

She picked up her bag and left.

I think that was… we’re getting into the issue of that specific member of Knesset. But I understand and am sensitive to the fact that they might not want to be part of Hatikvah. A Jewish democracy is not simple, like with the question of religion and state. It’s very complicated. Something that Yesh Atid wants to do is actually touch that third rail of Israeli politics. We want to tackle it and start a process of not ignoring it.

We in the party have worked on a document, that we’re going to release very soon. It took a long time. Yael German, Ruth Calderon, Aliza Lavie, Rabbi Shai Piron, and myself were involved and we all made comments. We definitely believe that we cannot force people to get married according to our understanding of Jewish law. We can’t.

You’re proposing some form of civil marriage.

That’s part of the compromise: coming to an understanding where everybody is comfortable with something. So civil union is for sure. I believe — and I’m putting my rabbi hat on for the moment — we actually create more halachic problems by forcing people to get married with kiddushin and nissuin [the ceremonies that constitute a traditional Jewish marriage]. Because from a halachic perspective they’re in a certain box, which if they are not freed from halachically, we create more problems… [Lipman is referring to a Jewish religious law that ascribes the status of a mamzer to offspring of women who were not properly divorced from their previous husbands.]

Personally, I’d much rather have a situation where everyone was in agreement with these issues but I understand that we need to create the possibility [of a civil union]. The very nature of a religious ministry is something that I struggle with.

What about the Chief Rabbinate?

The idea of the chief rabbi as a figure I think is a nice thing. Similar to the president: it’s a nice thing to have a figurehead in Israel; we’re a Jewish country.

But should they run the kashrut authority and be the masters of what may be called kosher?

I don’t understand why we need to have that. I [favor] the system in America, where people have a free market… and people can decide whether they want to trust a person or not.

Currently, the Rabbinate has a trademark of the term “kosher” and sanctions businesses that use it in any grammatical variation. You would do away with that?

Yeah. I’m in favor of opening up the religious market to the people. I think it’ll strengthen Judaism. I think there are lot of people right now for whom the term kashrut is something which pushes them off, because of what we’ve created with kashrut. Instead of it being something that [people want to explore].

The same thing with everything in Judaism. I have traveled the country: There are secular people who hate Judaism, and they hate that they hate Judaism. They don’t want to be in that situation. I take the blame on the religious side — I think we’re responsible for creating that. And I want to create an Israel where people are proud to be Jews, where they embrace and love being Jewish, and every person can decide religiously where they are on the spectrum and everyone has to respect each other.

Your ex-president [Barack Obama] is coming to visit Israel soon, and reports say another settlement freeze could be involved. Would you be in favor of that?

We’re not in favor of freezing settlements in the major settlement blocs. We think that it’s very clear that in any final settlement they’ll be part of Israel and as result, they have to be allowed to build and grow in those areas.

We didn’t talk about that [giving up] citizenship thing. [According to Israeli law, a member of Knesset must give up any additional nationality.] It’s hard to hear that, the way you said that [about my ex-president] just now hurt me, a little bit. It’s hard to be officially a former [US citizen]. That was hard to do.

Really?

Very hard. I thought it was signing a paper and it’d be easier. But I had to actually say it.

What did you have to say?

“I renounce my US citizenship with free will and without coercion.” I started crying.

Why?

Rabbi Dov Lipman and his mother, Leah Lipman (photo credit: Courtesy Leah Lipman)

Dov Lipman and his mother, Leah Lipman (photo credit: courtesy Leah Lipman)

Because I felt like I was slapping a country in the face that did so much for me and my family. My father’s side of the family [was] running away from pogroms in Russia. My mother’s side of the family after the Holocaust — it gave us the chance to be who we are, and taught me so many great values, and I can be a Redskins fans also [laughs.] It’s part of who I am.

A lot of people thought it’s about the taxes; it has nothing to do with financial things, really.

That’s not what we were thinking. We rather thought, Why would you be reluctant to give up your US citizenship? You don’t care enough about Israel?

I just felt it was a lack of gratitude. That’s what it felt like. Even though they know the reasons, that’s what I felt like when I said it. I do care about Israel. And by the way, it does feel good. I’m Israeli.