Israeli elections 2019

Ex-Shas MK, economist, anti-vaxxer: Who’s on Feiglin’s pro-cannabis Zehut list?

Array of candidates are united not by support of marijuana legalization but by a rejection of mainstream opinions and an embrace of issues on the political fringes

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Zehut party number two Rabbi Haim Amsalem speaking to potential voters in Safed, March 9, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Zehut party number two Rabbi Haim Amsalem speaking to potential voters in Safed, March 9, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In his 20 years of political activism, Moshe Feiglin’s ability to draw swathes of loyal supporters has not been matched by success in forging political allies.

His far-right Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction brought throngs of religious settlers into Likud ranks, but no high-profile party members joined Feiglin in his efforts to steer the party toward his far-right agenda. A short-lived stint as a Knesset member for the ruling party likewise saw him sidelined, with fellow lawmakers rarely joining his renegade protest votes against the government.

In his new Zehut party, Feiglin has continued to embrace the image of a maverick thinker pushing the boundaries of the political mainstream. Currently enjoying a surge of support largely due to the party’s pro-cannabis platform, the former MK is also pushing a radical libertarian policy package with, somewhat paradoxically, a religious and nationalist twist.

But if recent polls are correct and the support is enough to take him across the electoral threshold and into the next Knesset, Feiglin will no longer be the lone advocate of a marginalized political ideology, but, for the first time, the leader of a party of several MKs elected by its merit.

Zehut head Moshe Feiglin, meets potential voters in Jerusalem on March 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Despite being the undisputed leader and ideological head of Zehut, Feiglin did not — with one exception: Haim Amsalem — carefully curate his party slate like some other party heads. Instead, in an effort to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process, he introduced Israel’s first-ever primary election open to any member of the public.

The results of the primary produced a slate made up of perhaps the most varied array of candidates of any of the 43 parties running in the April 9 elections. But while each appears to be pushing a specific policy agenda, they are undeniably united — both with each other and with their iconoclastic leader — by a rejection of mainstream opinions and an embrace of various issues on the political fringes.

With Zehut currently polling at 4 seats (just above the 3.25% electoral threshold) and hoping to ride its current wave of popularity even further, here are the candidates who could join Feiglin as new Knesset members after the April 9:

Haim Amsalem — Renegade rabbi

Joining Zehut too late to register in the internal election, Rabbi Haim Amsalem’s status as a renegade thinker (as well as his own considerable following) was enough to make him the only candidate appointed by Feiglin and not to have stood in the open primaries.

Rabbi Haim Amsalem speaks at the campaign opening event of Zehut in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019. (Flash90)

A former Shas Knesset member, Amsalem sent shock waves through the ultra-Orthodox political world when he split from the party in 2011 in protest of its opposition to drafting Yeshiva students into the military.

The rabbi also accused the leaders of Shas of abandoning their constituents, Mizrahi Jews — Israelis of Middle Eastern descent — who long lagged behind those of European descent on Israel’s socioeconomic ladder. Shas leaders, Amsalem charged, had become the lackeys of Ashkenazi rabbis and their unyielding and insular brand of Judaism.

Failing to enter the Knesset in 2012 with his own Am Shalem (One people) party, Amsalem has become a regular guest on Israeli television, presenting himself as a different kind of ultra-Orthodox rabbi — one who acknowledges his community’s flaws, calls for it to join the rest of Israel society, and advocates a gentler Judaism than the currently dominant local variant.

Gilad Alper — Libertarian economist

Behind Amslem on the list is perhaps the most acclaimed of all Zehut’s candidates — veteran Israeli economist Gilad Alper.

The head of foreign equity research for the giant Israeli investment fund Excellence House, Alper has served on the Israel’s Economic Advisory Board for the finance minister since 2016 where he has made his name as a vehement proponent of aggressive free market economic policies.

Economist Gilad Alper. (Avshalom Levy/Elad Ackerman)

According to Feiglin — not someone who can be accused of lacking ambition — Alper is Zehut’s candidate for finance minister and “will ensure a truly free market that will channel the country’s abundance to all of Israel’s citizens.” Known as a maverick thinker with an undeniable libertarian streak, Alper announced his support of Zehut at its official launch event in 2017 and has since become a key member of the party’s policy team.

“As a veteran liberal and activist whose priority is civil and economic liberty, and maintains politically rightist views, I have waited for many years for a political party like Zehut  — a party that would present a truly liberal worldview and the change that Israel so sorely needs,” Alper says in a short blurb about himself on Zehut’s website.

Ronit Dror — The woman fighting for men’s rights

Next on the slate in fourth place is sociologist Ronit Dror, the chairwoman of Letzidchem, the first Israeli NGO that focuses on male victims of domestic abuse and harassment, and divorce rights for men.

Ronit Dror. (Avshalom Levy/Elad Ackerman)

Having published a number of academic articles on partner conflicts and domestic abuse, Dror has become a regular columnist in Hebrew media commenting on gender relations and male rights. A critic of the mainstream feminist movement, she has called to “eradicate the political and economic power of the female lobby.”

Praising Dror’s high placement on the list, Feiglin said that she “will help safeguard the family in Israel and will fight the battle of fathers, mothers, and children in the face of Israel’s juggernaut mechanisms of dismantlement.”

Libi Molad — Child-centered educator

In fifth spot on the list is early childhood educator Libby Molad, who Feiglin — not content with just the treasury — says is the party’s candidate for education minister.

Libby Molad. (Avshalom Levy/Elad Ackerman)

Molad, a former property lawyer, is one of Israel’s few Montessori councilors, teaching and advocating the Montessori Method of Education which champions a child-centered educational approach to learning based on scientific observations of children.

She is an outspoken advocate of revamping Israel’s education system to resemble the US voucher program, in which parents are given funds by the state to pay privatized and specialized schools directly. “The method will create healthy competition between schools and has been proven to improve students’ achievements and parental satisfaction from the education system,” she said in a campaign video ahead of the primary.

Molad is also a prominent member of the Israeli Freedom Movement, “a non-partisan movement that is striving to increase the freedom of the citizens of Israel in the spirit of classical liberalism,” which has endorsed Zehut for the coming election.

Other notable candidates

Several other candidates further down the list, while currently in unrealistic spots, are also known for unconventional views that may or may not be official party policy.

Shlomo Gordon, for example, placed at number 13, centered his primary election campaign on an anti-immunization platform, claiming that “forced vaccinations violate the Nuremberg Code of Informed Consent,” and spreading materials questioning modern medical practices. Responding to a fierce social media response to the campaign, Feiglin said on Thursday that Goren was “a little naive in my opinion, he got a bit confused,” but added that he did not support forcing parents to have their children inoculated.

Gadi Wilcherski at the launch of the Zehut election campaign in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019. (Flash90)

While the issue of legalizing marijuana has spurred Zehut’s current popularity, its most prominent legalization advocate is only placed at number 18 on the list.

Stand-up comedian, actor and legalization activist Gadi Wilcherski (who’s real name is Idan Mor) joined the party in December and has since appeared at most party events and in a number of Facebook videos alongside Feiglin.

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