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Book review

An immigrant-turned-lawmaker looks back at 25 turbulent months

Free of the tawdry mud-slinging many political memoirs traffic in, Dov Lipman’s new squeaky clean volume, ‘An “American” MK,’ delivers a rare look at the Knesset through the eyes of a newcomer to a country in turmoil

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

MK Dov Lipman in the Knesset, March 6, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Dov Lipman in the Knesset, March 6, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Long before Rabbi Dov Lipman started his political career, which culminated in a 25-month stint as a member of the 19th Knesset, he was out walking in his central Israeli hometown of Beit Shemesh and saw a sign declaring, “It is forbidden for women to walk on these streets in clothing deemed immodest.” Outraged, he got up in middle of the night and spray painted over the offensive messages.

The sign was quickly replaced, and more similar signs appeared, so he recruited a team of spray painters to ensure that they were all covered over. “At a certain point,” he recounts in his new book, “the cost of the spray paint became prohibitive so I started covering just the last two words on the signs. The signs then read: ‘It is forbidden for women to walk on these streets in clothing.’ The signs stopped appearing.”

Most Israelis probably have no idea who Dov Lipman is, but among English-speaking immigrants, the Maryland native is a well-known figure. In 2013, he made history when he became the first US-born MK in three decades and has since remained involved in politics and causes dear to the local Anglo community.

An advance copy of his new political memoir, entitled “An ‘American’ MK — Behind the scenes in the 19th Knesset,” was made available exclusively to The Times of Israel. It is available online since Wednesday and will hit bookstores in the coming days. But unlike the explosive autobiography by Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US who last year took over from Lipman as the Knesset’s sole American, the latter’s squeaky clean book is unlikely to make international headlines.

mk book cover

Oren’s tell-all insider’s tale, called “Ally — My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” provided readers with many insights into Jerusalem’s fraught relationship with Washington, including contentious observations about US President Barack Obama. Lipman, on the other hand, decided to stay politically correct, giving readers an honest, interesting but entirely uncontroversial account of his time as a lawmaker. Anyone expecting scandal or juicy gossip will be disappointed.

Lipman, who taught in Orthodox yeshivas before entering politics, alleges “corruption” only once, without naming names. He tells of his many travels abroad, but the most thrilling anecdote is when a small chartered plane taking him and four other MKs to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral is allowed to land and refuel in Djibouti, a Muslim country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. The Israeli delegation was not allowed to leave the plane or even look out the window, he remembers. “We had to make sure that all our window shades were closed so they would not even need to lay eyes on an Israeli!”

Comprising only 130 pages, including a 30-page appendix of some of his speeches, “An ‘American’ MK” consists of two main components. Besides the autobiographical elements, in which Lipman describes some of the anxieties of a relatively new immigrant-turned lawmaker (he arrived in 2004), he also explains the mundane goings-on of legislative work.

Lipman explains, for instance, that the workweek’s most productive hours are usually on Mondays, that all MKs are in the plenum to vote on no-confidence votes, and how easily any bill can be buried in the Knesset House Committee or how the Finance Committee often funnels huge sums of money without any oversight.

On one day, he recounts, the former Yesh Atid party lawmaker was rushed into the committee room to approve the transfer of millions of shekels and saw “numerous individuals” he had never seen before milling around trying to persuade MKs to vote in favor. “It turns out that two of them were arrested as part of the Yisrael Beytenu scandal. I was witness to corruption,” he writes.

‘One never knows what interest or body can jump in and torpedo legislation’

On a different occasion he arrived a bit late to a session of the Finance Committee because there had been heavy traffic on the way to Jerusalem and found that enormous sums already had been moved. “I walked into the committee room at 9:07 a.m., only to learn that committee chairman MK Nissim Slomiansky (Jewish Home) had already voted on the transfer of hundreds of millions of shekels for education — by himself!!”

A self-declared Haredi serving in a mostly secular party, Lipman often clashed with the ultra-Orthodox, especially on Yesh Atid’s effort to pass a law that would obligate Haredim to serve in the army. But apparently, the MKs from the Shas and United Torah Judaism lists did not see him as a threat to attempts to thwart the initiative. In Finance Committee hearings, they would often discuss their strategy among themselves, ignoring the fact that he was sitting right next to them and could overhear their conversations.

“I am not sure if they thought I didn’t understand the Hebrew or if they thought I was really focused on other things, but I actually gained important information from some of these situations – information which helped us understand what they were going to do to try to torpedo or change the legislation,” he recalls. “This enabled me and my colleagues to be prepared and deal with the challenges which these MKs often presented.”

MKs Moshe Gafni, right, and Ariel Atias, center, discuss their strategy in opposing a bill requiring Haredim to join the army, not realizing that Lipman, a staunch advocate of the bill, can hear every word. February 17, 2014. (Flash90)
MKs Moshe Gafni, right, and Ariel Atias, center, discuss their strategy in opposing a bill requiring Haredim to join the army, not realizing that Lipman, a staunch advocate of the bill, can hear every word. February 17, 2014. (Flash90)

Lipman suffices with short vignettes that are intentionally vaguely enough to prevent the burning of any bridges. Currently the director of the World Zionist Organization’s department of Zionist Operations and Public Diplomacy, Lipman, 44, makes no secret of his ambition to return to the Knesset in the next election. He writes, for instance, that it was “a true honor” to have participated in the elections for Israel’s tenth president and that he snatched a selfie with the leading candidates, Reuven Rivlin and Meir Sheetrit, but he does not reveal who he voted for.

(On the back cover of the book, Rivlin writes that he and Lipman “managed to work together despite being in different parties.”)

Lipman takes pride in his accomplishments as a lawmaker, which amount to minor policy changes helping new immigrants. For example, he writes of putting “immense pressure” on the Transportation Ministry to drop its requirement that immigrants who failed their driving test twice retake the theory test.

In terms of actual legislative achievements, Lipman admits that his record was less than stellar. “We were told not to expect to successfully pass many laws and that for an MK to move two laws through to a third reading in one term is a massive success.” By that measure, his tenure can be seen as somewhat of a failure since he did not accomplish that for a single law.

‘I must admit that several weeks after the inauguration, I could still be found wandering around trying to get from one place to the other’

The first bill he proposed sought to outlaw the import of foie gras. The production of this food item, which entails force-feeding geese, is already illegal in Israel but Lipman, a passionate advocate for animal rights, wanted to take it one step further by banning its import. But the bill was eventually killed by Lipman’s boss, then-finance minister and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid. The Hungarian foreign minister, during a meeting in Budapest about the fight against anti-Semitism, had convinced Lapid to bring up the issue with Lipman because foie gras is a major Hungarian export.

“I had to choose between fighting anti-Semitism and the foie gras law. You have to pull back and not move the law forward at this time,” Lapid told Lipman.

“I, of course, agreed with him but remained stunned by this unexpected development,” the freshman MK writes. “It was an instant lesson on how one never knows what interest or body can jump in and torpedo legislation.”

Dov Lipman, right, and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, weeks before the 2013 elections (Yaakov Lederman)
Dov Lipman, right, and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, weeks before the 2013 elections (Yaakov Lederman)

(That episode does not mean that Lapid and Lipman are on bad terms. The party leader wrote a glowing preface for “An ‘American’ MK,” calling Lipman a “superb member of Knesset” and suggesting that he is “among the greatest patriots that I have ever met.”)

Another piece of legislation Lipman wrote aimed to worsen jail conditions for Orthodox husbands who refuse to divorce their wives. He sought to bar these so-called get-refusers from receiving special strictly kosher food in prison, since they can no longer claim to be observant while ruining their wives’ lives. But the idea was stymied by members of his own faction, who argued that it would constitute a “basic violation of human rights.”

MK Dov Lipman in a Knesset jersey during a soccer training near the parliament in Jerusalem, May 13, 2014. (Flash90)
MK Dov Lipman in a Knesset jersey during a soccer training session near the parliament in Jerusalem, May 13, 2014. (Flash90)

“[M]y own history in the 19th Knesset is a fascinating study of the challenges and obstacles an MK faces in the legislative process,” Lipman concludes. “I was not successful in bringing any laws to a final reading, but am happy that the laws I proposed led to substantive debate and discussion about the various issues and that colleagues in the 20th Knesset are continuing to push some of these laws through the process.”

English-speaking immigrants to Israel will be fascinated by the segments in which Lipman discusses his peculiar status as an oleh hadash who less than ten years ago disembarked from a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight and suddenly found himself at the center of power of a tiny embattled state in the Middle East.

MK Dov Lipman during a Yesh Atid party meeting in the Knesset, January 6, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Dov Lipman during a Yesh Atid party meeting in the Knesset, January 6, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For one, he does not conceal that he was somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. Before his swearing-in ceremony, Knesset staff walked him and other novice legislators through the maze of Knesset hallways. “I must admit that several weeks after the inauguration, I could still be found wandering around trying to get from one place to the other,” he writes. During his inaugural address, he “played mental games” to make sure he did not burst out in tears.

He also struggled with the fact that he was not a native speaker. The first thing he did after the 2013 election was “making sure that my Hebrew was up to par for the Knesset,” he recalls. “The first step was to start reading a Hebrew newspaper every day. This enabled me to become more conversant with the ‘language of the Knesset’ — technical terminology that was never part of my lexicon of conversational Hebrew.”

During speeches in the plenum, the freshman lawmaker was constantly afraid to make mistakes, he admits throughout the book. “The Knesset provides MKs with a budget to learn another language. Most MKs use it for English, some for Russian, and others for Arabic. I was the only one who used this budget for Hebrew.”

Rabbi Dov Lipman, An ‘American’ MK — Behind the scenes in the 19th Knesset. Trafford Publishing,136 pages. $13.99.

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