A lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Sunday denounced Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avidgor Liberman as a person who would shop on Shabbat at a store that sells pork, as issues of religion and state remained front-and-center less than 48 hours before Israelis go the polls.
The secularist Yisrael Beytenu has campaigned against religious influence on public institutions ahead of the September 17 vote and vowed to bring about a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen, the No. 2 in Shas, denied in an interview with the Ynet news site there is any religious coercion in Israeli public life.
“There is secular coercion,” he claimed. “Liberman goes on Shabbat to a shop that sells pork and does it in public to mock [us]. That’s secular coercion.”
“He went to Tiv Taam, a shop that sells pork. He eats pork,” Cohen exclaimed.
Under Jewish law, the consumption of pork is forbidden, as is shopping on Shabbat.
In 2018, Liberman visited Ashdod on Shabbat and was filmed buying coffee and a sandwich amid protests over the southern city’s stepped-up enforcement of municipal bylaws barring businesses from operating on the Jewish day of rest.
The video was heavily criticized by ultra-Orthodox media and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who was previously considered close to Liberman, said afterward he was “finished” with the Yisrael Beytenu leader.
In the interview, Cohen also criticized Liberman, whose party draws its support heavily from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as a “product of communist education.”
Asked to clarify the remark, Cohen accused the Moldova-born Liberman of “cynicism, cruelty [and] opportunism.”
Liberman did not respond directly to Cohen’s comments but uploaded a clip from a recent interview to his social media comments in which he says he only eats kosher food at home and says prayers on Friday evening to mark the start of Shabbat, but drives on Saturday to play tennis.
Hitting back at Cohen, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar branded the Shas lawmaker “bizarre” and said he appeared to be “on the verge of clinical depression.”
“He needs to get used to the fact that Shas isn’t going to be in the next government,” Avidar told Ynet.
Besides the ultra-Orthodox, Yisrael Beytenu has also ruled out sitting in a government with Hardal, or nationalist ultra-Orthodox, parties.
Polls have forecast Yisrael Beytenu will be kingmaker after the elections, with neither the ruling Likud party nor opposition Blue and White having a clear path to cobbling together a ruling coalition without it.
Like Yisrael Beytenu, the centrist Blue and White has been campaigning on forming a “secular unity government” after the elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the idea and said Likud will push for a coalition with its traditional right-wing and religious partners.
Liberman helped precipitate the upcoming elections by refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government after elections in April unless legislation to formalize exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the ultra-Orthodox.
Coming up one seat short of a majority without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call a snap poll, marking the first time an Israeli election failed to produce a government.