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Interview

For South African-raised MK, Jewish-Arab coexistence is urgent and close to home

Blue and White’s Ruth Wasserman Lande is hoping her third time being sworn into the Knesset will be the charm

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Blue and White MK Ruth Wasserman Lande (Courtesy)
Blue and White MK Ruth Wasserman Lande (Courtesy)

The first time she was sworn into the Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande held her seat for just four days thanks to internal party shifts. The next time, she notched two months as an MK before a new Knesset came along to oust the serving lawmakers.

Now, two months after returning to the Israeli parliament yet again — and with slightly more job security on the horizon — Wasserman Lande is back and ready to leave her mark.

“It’s very hectic but I feel that we’re doing a lot,” Wasserman Lande, 45, told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in her Knesset office. “This time around, I can actually lay down legislation which is important to me.”

Within her first month on the job Wasserman Lande had introduced two law bills, including one that mandates Arabic-language instruction in schools beginning in elementary school, “in order to expose both cultures more to one another, to encourage discourse, understanding,” she said. “Language is culture and culture is language, and it’s also power.”

Last week, Wasserman Lande was selected to co-chair the Knesset caucus on advancing the Abraham Accords. As a longtime activist for Israeli-Arab coexistence and a former diplomat stationed in Egypt, she believes she can use her new perch in the Knesset to make an even more serious impact — even if it took her four elections and several resignations by other people to get to this point.

Wasserman Lande joined the Blue and White party in early 2019, but she wasn’t ranked high enough on the party slate to make it into the Knesset in any of the three subsequent rapid-fire elections. Then, in January 2021, a string of Blue and White MKs resigned from the Knesset ahead of a fourth election, clearing the way for her to be sworn in for the first time. But four days later, her party’s minister Izhar Shay quit the cabinet and took back his Knesset spot, unseating Wasserman Lande. Two weeks later, after yet another MK quit, Wasserman Lande was sworn in again to serve during the Knesset’s lame-duck period leading up to the March 2021 election.

In that campaign Wasserman Lande was ranked tenth on the Blue and White slate, which won only eight seats. But when the unlikely coalition government was sworn into office, enough Blue and White ministers resigned as lawmakers under the Norwegian Law that she could return to the Knesset on June 16.

Despite her — and the country’s — dizzying experience of Knesset musical chairs, Wasserman Lande is steadfast in her belief that this coalition will stand the test of time, even with a looming and fateful battle over the budget.

Blue and White MK Ruth Wasserman Lande during a Knesset committee hearing earlier this year. (Courtesy)

“Politics is the art of compromise,” she said. “It’s what you can do optimally within the framework of what you can’t do.” This coalition, she added, “is a parliamentary miracle… and of course it entails a lot of compromise.”

She said she believes the coalition will succeed in passing a budget before the November deadline, which otherwise automatically triggers a new election.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Wasserman Lande. “The optimism is based on the fact that every element of this pluralistic government has an interest in maintaining this government.” On a broader level, she said, the country is in desperate need of a budget, which it has not had for two and a half years. Yet her optimism is tempered with caution, she said, because it is admittedly “a complex coalition.”

Building bridges

Throughout her life and career, Wasserman Lande has bridged cultures, countries and languages. Born in Ashdod to Lithuanian immigrants, she was 8 when her parents decided to relocate to South Africa.

“When we left Israel I started planning on coming back to Israel and making aliya when I finished high school, once I actually understood that we were not coming back,” she recalled. And she did just that, returning to Israel alone at age 17 while the rest of her family moved to the United States.

“I came to Israel and that was one goal marked done,” she said. Her next hurdle: being accepted to serve in a high-level intelligence position in the IDF. “It was a problem, because I just came to Israel and it was very difficult to check my background. But I was determined,” she said, waiting months before ultimately receiving her security clearance and successfully joining the Research Department of the IDF Directorate of Military Intelligence.

Wasserman Lande joined the Foreign Ministry shortly after her IDF service, studied Arabic and was stationed in Egypt for three years, including as the de facto deputy ambassador. She later served as an adviser to president Shimon Peres and then as deputy director general at the Federation of Local Authorities. In that job, she worked with local governments across the country — in particular in the northern and southern periphery — to attract international investors and philanthropists to bankroll projects in their cities.

Now back in the Knesset, Wasserman Lande said her focus above all is to fortify the situation on the ground in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities and to rebuild trust and cooperation between neighbors.

Blue and White MK Ruth Wasserman Lande (second left) meets with local activists. (Courtesy)

The issue is her top priority, she said, “budget-wise and energy-wise and public awareness-wise.” She is aiming to have the six cities that are officially defined as mixed cities — Lod, Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramle, and Nof HaGalil (formerly Nazareth Illit) — granted a special government status. Those communities, she said, need particular care and attention on “community, security, financially, infrastructure-wise, education. And without a doubt, dealing with crime and violence in the Arab street, which is part and parcel of this whole thing, and which doesn’t only pertain to the mixed cities.”

Two weeks after Wasserman Lande spoke to The Times of Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled a plan to tackle crime in Arab communities. The Abraham Initiatives, an organization that works on improving Arab-police relations, said the establishment of the program “carries important symbolic value.” And Wasserman-Lande believes it shows the importance with which the government views the issue.

The Blue and White MK said her highest priority is “the need to strengthen the communities, the discourse between them, the need to be exemplary to other cities on how different and pluralistic communities can actually live together, because this is our reality.”

Above all of the issues she is passionate about, Wasserman Lande said, “This is really my major project. Because if we manage to do that in a significant manner, it would make a strategic, security, macro impact on the country as a whole.”

The issue is a personal one as well: Wasserman Lande and her family lived for close to a decade in the mixed city of Lod, which emerged as a flashpoint of deadly Jewish-Arab clashes during the conflict between Israel and Gaza in May.

“I think that everybody was very shocked when everything happened,” she said, “despite the fact that there were underlying tensions in Lod between the Arab and the Jewish communities for decades, but particularly in the last decade.”

She noted that there were “external” elements that sought to exploit some of those underlying tensions as well as the nationalistic feelings of many Arab Israelis. “But I think that a lot of the violence and the crime that were not dealt with properly in the last decade had a lot to do with it.” In 2008, Wasserman Lande and her husband, Aviv, co-founded the Lod Community Foundation, aimed at strengthening the city and its diverse population.

Wasserman Lande, who moved to the Gan Yoshiya moshav several years ago, said it was painful to watch as violence tore her former home apart earlier this year.

“I felt dreadful. I felt that a lot of the Jewish inhabitants were traumatized, clinically traumatized. Their neighbors, that they knew… were suddenly burning things” in the city, she said. “It was traumatizing… it was shocking.”

Blue and White MK Ruth Wasserman Lande with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev. (Courtesy)

Despite the violence seen in May — not only in Lod — Wasserman Lande sees a possibility for change.

“We are in a ticking time bomb, the potential threat is there, but that’s not to say that I’m not optimistic,” she said. “It needs to be dealt with, and the current government has put high on its agenda dealing with this issue.”

A real calling

While Wasserman Lande’s experience leaves her both qualified and motivated to tackle Israeli-Arab coexistence, she is also more attuned than most to the needs of South African Jews as well as English-speaking immigrants.

“The South African Jewish community is in a very fragile situation,” she said, pointing to violence and looting that gripped the country last month. “One of the things that I’m doing is trying to help the Jewish community there that wishes to make aliya have their paperwork or bureaucracy recognized by the interior minister,” she said, in particular due to the current difficulty in getting official government documentation in South Africa.

Overall, the MK feels that she has a public responsibility to both English-speaking immigrants as well as the State of Israel as a whole.

“I feel that this is a real calling,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy… but I feel like I’m doing something which is important.”

Wasserman Lande believes “we owe it to this place, which is more than just a state, more than just a civilian entity. It’s the homeland of the Jewish people.”

In part due to her background as an immigrant, she said, she believes “a lot weighs on this place, which is a complex, delicate, fragile place. And I feel that I have a small part to play in its survival and resilience. And I’m doing the best I can.”

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