When ‘Chametz’ Rises, Israeli Governments Can Fall
The Bennett coalition, Israel’s most inclusive, seemed too good to last.
Naftali Bennett’s days as prime minister appear numbered. He is being criticized now for ignoring the pro-settler demands of his own Yamina party.
Call it “Chametzgate.”
The surprise defection this week of Idit Silman, a right-wing member of the Knesset from the ruling coalition, leaves the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in limbo, without a majority, and unlikely to survive.
In truth, it was a miracle that the coalition — made up of eight parties, from left to right and including an Arab party leader for the first time — lasted this long, almost ten months.
The ostensible reason for Silman, a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, to step down now was the fact that Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, approved allowing visitors to bring chametz (unleavened bread) into hospitals during Pesach.
Silman’s complaint was a remarkably flimsy excuse to use in throwing the government into turmoil, especially because the Supreme Court had approved the policy last year and there were no complaints when it was carried out last Pesach, when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister.
But Silman, who has been harassed for the last 10 months by fellow religious Zionists who accused her of caving to her coalition partners on the left, wanted out. And it worked.
That’s because ideological and political tensions are ever-present within a society deeply divided over what it means to be both a Jewish and democratic state – one that seeks to uphold Jewish traditions (like Passover laws) while granting individual freedoms (like choosing what food to bring a relative or friend in the hospital).
This would not be the first time an Israeli government was toppled over a relatively minor religious issue. Prime ministers always worry about the very real possibility of having their political careers upended over a perceived breach of fealty to religious laws.
Yitzhak Rabin provides a case in point – in fact, two cases.
On a Friday afternoon in December 1976, then-Prime Minister Rabin was among the government ministers attending a ceremony held in Israel on the arrival from the U.S. of a number of F-15 airplanes. The dignitaries were on hand because the delivery of the aircraft was a significant and tangible sign of American support for a country still recovering from the shock and trauma of the Yom Kippur War three years earlier. Unfortunately for Rabin, the elaborate ceremony ran late, resulting in the state’s leaders’ participation in a program that violated Shabbat.
The ultra-religious parties, critical of Rabin and the Labor party, seized the opportunity to submit a motion of no confidence in the government, citing desecration of Shabbat. The prime minister, believing he and Labor would be better off in the long run by calling for new elections, dissolved the government and resigned. But he, like everyone else, was shocked when Menachem Begin, the perennial also-ran of Israeli politics, having lost eight previous elections, led his Likud party to a stunning victory in May 1977, ending Labor’s three-decade dominance.
On a lighter note, the late diplomat and author Yehuda Avner, described in his must-read book, “The Prime Ministers,” a 1974 event in Washington that also involved Rabin. It was a precursor of the kind of religious-secular dilemma unique to leaders of the world’s only Jewish state.
Avner was a guest at an official state banquet in Washington honoring Prime Minister Rabin, hosted by President Gerald Ford. Well into the meal, Avner, an observant Jew and close advisor of the prime minister, was still waiting to be served the vegetarian kosher meal he had ordered. All around him, more than 200 formally dressed guests were dining on roast pheasant.
Finally, waiters brought Avner what he describes as “a vegetarian extravaganza consisting of a base of lettuce as thick as a Bible, on top of which sat a mound of diced fruit,” topped by “a glob of cottage cheese, and on top of that a swish of whipped cream, so that the whole thingamajig must have stood about a foot high.”
Those around Avner, admiring the “fiesta of color,” began to laugh and applaud, calling more attention to the scene. At this point, Ford, after observing the excitement, exchanged whispered comments with Rabin, then stood up and called out “Happy birthday, young fella” – and led the entire room in singing “Happy Birthday” to a mortified Avner.
After dinner, when he had a moment alone with Rabin, Avner asked his boss why he had told Ford it was his birthday. “What else should I have told him – the truth?” Rabin shot back. “If I did that, tomorrow there’d be a headline in the newspapers that you ate kosher and I didn’t, and the religious parties will bolt the coalition, and I’ll have a government crisis on my hands. Am I meshuggah?”
This week’s political crisis in Jerusalem – outwardly over chametz – indeed seemed meshuggah, more like a Purim spiel than a grinding halt to the wheels of government during a pandemic, a horrific war in Ukraine, and an outbreak of Arab violence in Israel only days before Pesach.
The immediate future for Israel’s leadership is cloudy. If there are no further defections, it’s possible that the current government could limp along until the end of the year, unable to pass legislation. It would come to an end early next year when it would be unable to pass a new budget, as required by law.
If there are more defections, presumably the opposition – led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party – will call for elections. Yair Lapid, the current foreign minister and next in the rotation, would take the helm until a new government is in place.
Other scenarios are possible as well.
Finally, it’s worth noting that chametz, the key image in this drama, is a word that takes on a meaning beyond that of the actual grains that, when mixed with water, rise and become leavened, and thus prohibited during Pesach. Our rabbis describe chametz in spiritual terms as a rising of the ego, of pride, of the soiled, non-spiritual elements of our lives that we need to purify. Ridding our homes and ourselves of chametz in preparation of the holiday is the prescription for cleansing our souls as well as our kitchens.
As we approach the Festival of Freedom, Israeli leaders, like each of us, are called on to undergo a “cheshbon ha’nefesh” (a deep, inner self-evaluation). Will they, and we, be able to overcome personal, often selfish goals and focus on what is best for our families, our society, our people?
It’s a powerful challenge.
Let’s hope that this Pesach, in recalling the birth of the Jewish nation and retelling the stirring story of liberation and freedom, we will be reminded of what is necessary to help unite rather than further divide us.