'Keep trying to defeat each other - and we'll defeat future'

Israel is ‘fragile, flammable,’ freshman MK warns in speech watched by millions

Blue and White MK Tehila Friedman’s searing maiden speech in the Knesset touches a cord with admonition that a Jewish state ‘is not a given’ and ‘our differences are not temporary’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Blue and White MK Tehila Friedman delivers her maiden speech at the Knesset, August 11, 2020 (Video screen capture)
Blue and White MK Tehila Friedman delivers her maiden speech at the Knesset, August 11, 2020 (Video screen capture)

Israeli society is fractured and fragile, and threatened from within by those who would spread “malignant hate” between its many tribes and communities. So argues one of the most wildly viral videos to ever cross the collective consciousness of Hebrew-speaking Israelis, urging in response “to seal an alliance of moderates with all those who understand the challenge of living together.”

The video is short, a speech in the Knesset by a little-known lawmaker named Tehila Friedman, a backbencher in the Blue and White party who only entered parliament two months ago after Michael Biton, now a “minister in the defense ministry,” resigned his Knesset seat to clear the way.

Friedman has been an active lawmaker in that short time, challenging the Education Ministry on its preparations for a school year in the shadow of the pandemic, and railing at the impact of spending cuts brought on by the budget impasse in the Knesset on Israel’s underprivileged and youth at risk.

Her energetic efforts notwithstanding, none of it brought much attention from the national news media.

Then, on Tuesday, she got up to speak at the Knesset podium for the first time. It was what Knesset protocol labels a “maiden speech,” when freshly-minted MKs traditionally thank their parents and teachers and say something unobjectionable about their aspirations and beliefs.

לנאומי פתיחה של חברי כנסת חדשים יש כללים. אני אמורה לספר על תחנות בחיי, להודות למי שהביאני עד הלום ולשתף משהו מהחלומות ומהשאיפות שבשמן ולשמן הגעתי אל הבית הזה.אבל כשנאום הפתיחה הרשמי שלי יכול מאד להיות גם נאום הסיום, והרלוונטיות של החלומות והתוכניות שאיתם באתי מוטלת בספק, בתוך הכאוס הזה של דהרה אל התהום וההרס של בחירות רביעית – ויתרתי היום על כללי הטקס, וביקשתי לומר משהו אחר. לקראת הסוף כמובן שנחנקתי מדמעות. קשוחה כבר לא אהיה…

Posted by ‎תהלה פרידמן‎ on Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The soft-spoken Friedman stood at the lectern for just 11 minutes, twice choked up with tears, and sent shivers through the collective national spine.

In just two days, the video of her speech was viewed at least 1.5 million times on Facebook — a sizable chunk of the world’s Hebrew-speaking population. Excerpts were carried in primetime by Israel’s major television news channels.

Watch the speech with English subtitles:

It was the rare political speech that broke down barriers. Though Friedman hails from centrist Blue and White and railed against the right in her speech, it was shared most enthusiastically by right-wing viewers, from Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal, whose share was the one that went viral and passed the one-million-view mark, to pundit, comedian and onetime Yamina Knesset candidate Hanoch Daum (48,000 views).

Friedman’s own post of the video was viewed 76,000 times.

The speech was covered in detail by outlets large and small, including sectarian news media such as the religious-Zionist website Kipa and Haredi website Kikar Hashabat, which labeled the video “the MK’s speech that captivated the internet.”

“My opening speech may very well be my closing speech,” Friedman noted in her remarks, as the continuing budget crisis threatened to send the country to a fourth election in 19 months.

Blue and White MK Tehila Friedman (Courtesy)

That’s why she had decided to shy away from speaking of “my aspirations and plans, whose relevance is questionable… in this chaotic gallop toward the abyss and the devastation of a fourth election.”

Begging her listeners’ forgiveness, she asked “to say something different.”

She began: “Over the past few weeks, since I arrived in this house, I haven’t stopped thinking about Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, one of the most important Jews in history, who at the last moment managed to rescue the Jewish people out of Jerusalem and its burning Temple and to Yavne and its unifying academy, and to invent it anew. I think of that leader, who lived in Jerusalem, in the midst of a terrible civil war, while outside the Romans stood and waited for the right moment to enter and destroy everything.”

The civil war “began because of an argument about how to deal with the Romans, but quickly turned into a war of identity, a war of all against all. What you think about the Romans became who you were… If I disagreed with you, I was against you, utterly, onto bloodshed. Hate washed over everything. In the name of hate, knives were drawn in the Holy Temple. In the name of hate, grain silos were set on fire that could have fed a city under siege. In the name of hate came hunger, and with hunger despair.”

The Jewish people was now once again at such a moment of decision, she warned, brought on by crises both internal and external, but first and foremost by hate itself.

Israeli police officers stand guard during a protest outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on July 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Now, in the midst of a crisis of enormous proportions, we find ourselves again in a frightening place. A deadly plague runs wild outside, and within, the same destructive desire to defeat one another. The same blindness and folly. The same malignant hate that makes us invest most of our energies on the internal fight. As in that time, the silos of trust are set on fire, the political institutions are made to crumble, endangering with mind-numbing irresponsibility the very existence of a shared home.”

The coronavirus crisis didn’t dampen the division, Friedman warned.

“In the middle of this coronavirus period, in a health crisis and an economic crisis and a social crisis unlike any we’ve known before, in a crisis of governance after a year and a half of deadlock without an approved budget and facing a painful deficit and a recession, there are again those who want us to take hold of each other’s vestments [to fight], to again tear at one another, to once again take every societal wound and scar and rub it until it bleeds again, to once again mock and ridicule the pain of others.”

She turned to her right-wing colleagues: “Three times in a year and a half, you tried to win, to bend, to force, to bring a surrender. We have to stop this. We have to stop trying to win.

“I’m a Jew, a religious person, religious-Zionist, nationalist, feminist, Jerusalemite. I was raised on a certain language and tradition… that has its truth and beauty and good. But I know that in other communities and worlds, there is truth and beauty and good, and I can learn from them. I have things to learn from Mizrahi traditionalism, from the Jews of the Soviet Union, from the Jews of Ethiopia, from the descendants of the pioneers and the labor settlement, from the individualist liberals, from the Haredim, from the Hardalim (Haredi-nationalists), I have things to learn from the Arabs, I have things to learn from the Druze, from the Bedouin, I have things to learn from the Jews of the Diaspora.”

Anti-government protesters, clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, gather with Israeli flags and signs during a demonstration in Charles Clore Park in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020 (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

She went on: “True, some of these groups and communities have principles, values and behaviors that I oppose with a passion, some of them actually threaten me — as a woman or a Jew or a Zionist or a religious person. But I remember and know that in every one of those groups, truly in every one — there are of course those who see themselves as the only correct path, whose justice [they expect] everyone will soon recognize, want to emulate it, and they shall lead and rule — but there are also those who understand that our differences are not temporary, that we are fated to live together and that this is the challenge of our lives.”

It is “with them,” she said, “that I wish to seal an alliance of moderates, with all those from all the communities who understand this challenge of living together, to restore the power from the fringes that drive us crazy, to create a shared center.”

There was nothing “accommodating” about that call, she said.

“I speak softly, I know, and you might make the mistake of thinking my message comes from a soft and accommodating center. But it’s the opposite. My center is a preexisting center, a fervent center, that is unwilling to compromise on its centrism, on its responsibility for all the residents of the country, on the room it has for all who truly want to live together, that puts limits on extremism and selfishness, a center able to sacrifice its own life on the altar of moderation, of democracy, of a Judaism that makes room, a center that defends bodily the rules of the game that enable us to have an argument without falling to pieces.”

That’s not how the Knesset usually functioned, she lamented.

“In the six weeks I’ve been in this house, I’ve heard endless mockery and hatred toward entire groups in Israeli society. I’ve heard the hope that ‘they’ disappear and ‘we’ can rule without limits.

Illustrative: The plenum hall of the Israeli parliament on the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I want to tell you something. They won’t disappear. Call as many elections as you like. No one is going to disappear. If we keep trying to defeat each other, we will only defeat our children’s future. It is our mutual solidarity that will be routed, our inner resilience, our ability to continue to uphold this miracle called the state of Israel.”

Israel, she insisted repeatedly, was “a miracle.”

“We live within a miracle. I’m the daughter of a paratrooper who was among the liberators of Jerusalem. I live and raise my children in Jerusalem. My most basic day-to-day is the fulfillment of the greatest prophecies of the prophets of Israel. The elderly strolling the boardwalk, children playing — that which for my grandparents was a dream that was hard to even imagine is my simple lived reality.

“But I never took it for granted. [The poet] Yehuda Amichai taught us, ‘From afar, everything looks like a miracle, but from up close even a miracle doesn’t look like one.’ Even those who passed in the Red Sea at the parting of the waters [by Moses] saw only the sweaty back of the person walking in front of them.

“I live a miracle and I recognize the miracle. I thank God for the privilege of living in this miracle, and mainly I feel responsible for it, for my wellbeing, for its wellbeing, and for its wholeness, because my wellbeing is tied to its wholeness.”

Israeli Border Police officers push away a right-wing protester from a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

She ended with a call for unity, for the preservation of the unity government and for an end to the factional infighting and delegitimization that have so consumed Israel’s political discourse in recent years.

“I came here to be part of a leadership committed to sustaining the miracle called the State of Israel, a leadership that does not seek to avenge wrongs, to take care of its own or to be right, but wants to rehabilitate and heal.

“I believed in the need for a unity government. I still believe it’s the only way to lay the foundations for the next stage in the life of the nation, to save us from destruction, to invent ourselves anew.”

In her final moments at the podium, her voice choked up, she said, “These are the days of the Third Temple. And just like the two that preceded it, it’s fragile. It’s flammable. It’s not a given. Its stability is our responsibility. Its existence depends on us. This is our watch.”

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