This week we’re joined by Allison Kaplan Sommer, Ha’aretz journalist and panelist for The Promised Podcast, to discuss some of the headliners from the Israeli election: potential kingmaker and Ra’am Party leader Mansour Abbas and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who will be the first Reform rabbi to serve in the Knesset. Kaplan Sommer also discusses how democracy plays out in Israel and the United States and what it’s like to live in Israel, a complex, multicultural society.

Then, AJC CEO David Harris shares a moving Passover message about his first-hand involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement and modern-day exoduses.

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

Episode Lineup: 

  • (00:40) Allison Kaplan Sommer
  • (18:26) David Harris
  • (20:27) Manya Brachear Pashman
  • (23:34) Seffi Kogen



Episode Transcript

Manya Brachear Pashman  (0:28)  
Israel's fourth election is behind us. What does that mean? A new Prime Minister? An old one? A fifth election? In other words, what made this election different from all other elections? Here to break down the results is Allison Kaplan Sommer, a journalist with Haaretz and a panelist on The Promised Podcast. Allison, welcome to the show.

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (0:59)  
Hi, how are you?

Manya Brachear Pashman  (1:00)  
Good, good. So you posted a reminder earlier this week that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. So did Israel's fourth election produce a different result?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (1:15)  
No, it did not actually. So I guess that makes us officially, clinically insane. The fourth election, and we now have about more than 98% of our votes counted, appears to be another political deadlock in which nobody can really figure out how someone is going to assemble this mosaic, or maybe it's more like a Rubik's Cube of parties, into an actual ruling government coalition.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (1:44)  
Well, were there any new developments?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (1:47)  
The headline of the election is that the fate of the nation seems to be in the hands of a conservative Arab Islamist dentist named Mansour Abbas, who is the head of the Islamic United Arab List, who decided to do something very radical this election and break away from the joint Arab list, run independently and basically say publicly, before and after the election, that he is going to be willing to join or work with any Israeli government coalition that serves the Arab sector in terms of giving it enough funding, in terms of giving it enough resources. And that's really revolutionary in Israeli politics. And again, with the Jewish society, Jewish political parties, deadlocked, it looks like his four seats, it looks like he's headed towards having four seats in this election, could tip the balance either towards allowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have a ruling government coalition, or allowing the group of parties that oppose Netanyahu to form a coalition. In both cases, on both sides, it's going to be a very difficult, delicate, some say, impossible negotiation.

Manya Brachear Pashman  3:01  
So how likely is it that that group will support Netanyahu? This is a prime minister who actually rallied his supporters in the last election by warning of a high Arab turnout as if that was a threat. I know he courted the Arab vote more so this time around. I mean, how likely is it that they will align with him? And then again, how likely is it that they'll align with his opponents? Some of whom have said they want to just toss Arab citizens for being what they consider disloyal?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (3:29)  
Well, Abbas has said, you know, pretty much let's make a deal. Whoever offers he said, I'm going to be pragmatic, I'm not going to be ideological, whoever offers me the best deal. It's going to be highly problematic in the Netanyahu camp, because he has some of the most extreme, far right politicians in Israel's history, some of whom advocate, encouraging "Israel's Arab citizens to emigrate if they are not sufficiently loyal." And some of those potential far right coalition partners that Netanyahu also needs in order to form a coalition has said outright that they will not sit in any coalition that is supported by the Islamist party, either within the coalition, or that's willing to vote with them but not officially be part of their coalition, so that's very unlikely. There's more of a chance that the other side will accept the support of the United Arab List in order to put it over the threshold, the number of seats that you need in order to have a coalition. But there's some very ideologically, right leaning parties on the other side as well that they have a problem with Netanyahu, but that doesn't mean that their left wing by any way shape or form, and they may have a great deal of difficulty again allowing themselves to be aligned with the United Arab List, which has members who have, you know, visited terrorists in prison, who there are photographs of them embracing the families of terrorists, etc. It's going to be a very difficult pill, I think, to swallow on either side of the fence, the pro-Netanyahu or the anti-Netanyahu side.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (4:57)  
But that this was predicted right? I mean that the Arab-Israeli vote would indeed sway or make a difference and emerge stronger in this election. Right?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (5:06)  
Well, this list, the United Arab List, and all of the polling ahead of the elections was not supposed to cross the electoral threshold. So it's not something that people expected. This guy, Mansour Abbas, has been very friendly with Netanyahu in the month leading up to the election. And it was seen as Netanyahu cultivating the friendship of this faction of the Israeli Arab political sector, kind of in order to divide and conquer because all of these parties, if you recall, were part of what was called the Arab Joint List, the four Arab parties who are all joined together in one powerful political party that had 15 members. And by cultivating the Islamist list and kind of encouraging the rhetoric of their leader Mansour Abbas, that they would do what's good for Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu was able to sort of kind of weaken the overall impact of the Israeli Arab vote by splitting it up, and potentially Abbas not getting it under the threshold. In a way, that strategy seems to have backfired because Abbas has now not only reached the threshold, but he could be the deciding factor on whether either side is able to mount a coalition and if they fail, if neither side agree to bring him in with them, or if he doesn't agree to go in with them, it looks like we're heading towards fifth elections.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (6:25)  
Another new development, I saw you gave an interview in the i24 newsroom yesterday and bumped into newly-elected Knesset member, Gilad Kariv. He will be the first Reform Rabbi in the Knesset. What does that significance and then were there other surprises much like that?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (6:42)  
Well, it wasn't a surprise. I mean, he was number four on the Labor Party list. He is a longtime activist for religious pluralism, religious freedom in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox establishment has worked very hard for decades since the beginning of the State to try to make Orthodox Judaism the only officially recognized form of Judaism, as far as the government is concerned regarding conversions, regarding weddings, all lifecycle events. And so having him in this position of power, not on the outside, right, leading the reform movement, bouncing court cases or lobbying from the outside, but being in the government will be a very powerful tool in order to advance the cause of non-Orthodox Judaism, and religious pluralism in Israel. And some of these ultra-Orthodox parties that have opposed the reform movement in general and Gilad Kariv specifically are threatening that once he's in the Knesset, they will boycott him. Now, we don't know what kind of form that will take from, you know, not sitting with him in the cafeteria for lunch, or not dealing with the Labor Party at all, but it's going to be a real test as to how far the Orthodox establishment is willing to bend.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (7:52)  
So you do predict a fifth election?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (7:55)  
At the moment, you can't predict anything. I can predict that if there is some sort of solution to avoid a fifth election, it's going to be a very difficult and complicated solution. People are discussing alternative strategies to avoiding a new election. One is, of course, that Mansour Abbas's United Arab List joins either from the outside or from the inside of one of the coalitions. A possible strategy that some of the anti-Netanyahu factions are discussing are to put together a temporary coalition of 61 parties, including the United Arab List, basically, for a number of months, very temporary government to use it to pass a law in the Knesset that would forbid anyone facing criminal charges in court to run for Prime Minister, basically passing a law that would not allow Netanyahu to run in another election, then breaking up the Knesset, and having a fifth election. But a fifth election without Netanyahu. That's also something that people are talking about. But these are very out of the box conversations. And it's really unclear if any of them will work. So I would say that the odds are high that by the end of this year, we may be looking at a fifth election

Manya Brachear Pashman  (9:09)  
Well now this all seems, the solutions all seem to come down to political calculus. But I'm curious if you believe this kind of two year tailspin will actually lead to some substantive changes in the electoral system. I mean, how likely is it that the way Israel's democracy itself functions could change?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (9:30)  
One would like to think so. You know, one of the parties that was less successful in running, Gideon Sa'ar's New Hope party, wanted term limits. So therefore, you know, you could not have a figure like Netanyahu dominating Israeli politics for decades, the way it has. I mean, you know, on one hand, the Israeli system is a highly democratic system. You know, all of these different parties represent, you know, legitimate tribes, groups that want certain things and want different things. So it's kind of hard to think of a way you could limit that, perhaps the threshold could be lifted, the electoral threshold, so in order to enter the Knesset at all, it would go up from four seats to a higher number of seats, and therefore, to have a smaller number of parties. The country is very divided and very deadlocked. And it's questionable whether simply changing the system would actually solve that.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (10:19)  
Do Israelis look at the American partisan system and just laugh? I'm just really curious, the systems are so different, even though they're both democracies. But what are the views of our very different system from there?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (10:32)  
Well, they're mirror images of each other. Because the main problem, I think, in American politics, for example, if you look at what's going on in both parties, you know, in the Republican Party, within the party, you have the power struggle, what's going on now, between those who are loyal to Donald Trump, who want to do what Donald Trump says, you know, even though he's not president anymore, his loyalists are split in the party with "traditional Republicans" who are less populist, who believe more in following the rules rather than, you know, winning at any cost. So you've got that within the party. And inside the Democratic Party, you're split between establishment Democrats, more conservative Democrats, and the extremely progressive fringe. So those struggles go on within the parties. So you know, that's the crisis within American politics, I think. And in Israeli politics, you see these differences expressed in multiple small parties, anyone who has a difference with somebody else can leave that party, and then you know, go start a new one. It's a question as to which is better, which is more democratic, which is more stable.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (11:37)  
I'm also curious if, you raise a good point, I mean, no system is perfect, right? We all have our problems. I'm also curious, is it beyond politics? I mean, are there significant efforts afoot there to bridge just the many polarizations in Israel? The right versus left, Arab versus Jewish, religious versus secular? I mean, they're just so many points of conflict and tension, as there are here. Beyond politics, are there efforts afoot to really bring people together or not so much?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (12:09)  
Well, we've got obviously active civil society organizations that tries to bring people together. And you know, you can't let the view from the outside of the country fool you. For example, Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, religious and non-religious, you know, everybody shares the same space. You've got people, even if they don't live in the same neighborhood, necessarily, they shop in the same stores, they work together in the same offices. So there's no total lack of contact between the different sectors. But everybody's got a different view of the kind of society, the kind of Israel that they are working towards that their ideals of the society aren't, particularly when you throw religion into the mix, and populations that really want, I wouldn't say, you know, necessarily a full on theocracy, but want religion to have a really defining role in the country. You know, the classic, is it a state of the Jews or is the state of the Israelis? The central conflict is how you view the state and do you view it as a state of all of its citizens? Or do you view it as a state that has some sort of a mission for the Jewish people and anyone who is not Jewish or was not committed necessarily to a Jewish and a Jewishly observant vision is here, sort of on suffrage and is not, you know, a full fledged member of the community and of the State?

Manya Brachear Pashman  (13:31)  
You raise a very good point. I mean, certainly the views from the outside are skewed, right? What people read about and hear about Israel, it gets reduced down and they don't realize that this is a very complex society of people living together and figuring out how to negotiate.

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (13:48)  
Every time that I'm in the shopping mall, I write and I walk around and being waited on by a woman in a hijab. And next to me, a bunch of Arab girls are buying their clothes, and a religious woman walks by, I interact with everybody. And I think that this is just not the picture that most of the people abroad are necessarily seeing when they imagine what life is like in Israel, that they picture bars and walls and populations that are sort of divided from each other and constantly in conflict. And that's not the way day to day life is here.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (14:17)  
I am curious how politics plays into our political expression rather plays into day to day life. I mean, here in America, I would say since this election, in particular, since the last two elections, the polarization really plays out on the street, in the stores. If you detect that someone is either a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter, depending on what side you're on, if you're on the opposite side, you don't particularly want to strike up a conversation with them. I have never noticed that until these last two elections. And I'm just curious if the effects of the polarizations in Israel are the same, or if this tension is something that Israelis have mastered and are able to negotiate around in day to day life.

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (14:57)  
Israel is a much smaller society and a much more closely knit society and everyone sort of in each other's face for better or for worse. It's harder, as someone who's experienced life in America and in Israel, I think to live in a filter bubble in Israel. I think that you inevitably encounter often within your own family, if not within the greater society, people who have very disparate political views. I don't feel people, you know, necessarily dividing by political outlook here. We definitely have our tribes, you know, religion and ethnicity, etc. But I don't necessarily see it breaking down very much by politics. I mean, after four elections, I have to tell you that people are just exhausted with politics and they're exhausted with campaigning. In a way it puts everyone in the same boat. Everyone feels a little bit united in being sick and tired of the political situation. And you know, obviously Coronavirus gave people a different perspective on things. Coronavirus was not as politicized in Israel as it was in the United States. So everyone here right now is kind of united in their exhaustion and disgust with the fact that the political system can't seem to be organized in a functioning way in which we can count on our government to just function and stop bringing us to repeat elections, and allow us to live our life and think about things other than politics for a while.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (16:22)  
My last question, Alison, is who is suffering here? I mean, what does this all mean for the country's infrastructure, the services that it provides? What is not happening as Israelis just keep going back and forth to the polls?

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (16:36)  
Well, one thing that's not suffering, obviously, is the Coronavirus counter effort. One thing you have to credit Netanyahu with, and in a way I find it kind of striking that even after having done this, he did not get some sort of definitive win in this election, is everybody in Israel has the opportunity to be vaccinated, and we've passed the 50% mark, in terms of the adult population being vaccinated. So that's something that we have been able to move on with. And despite all of our political chaos, or maybe because of it, you know, because Netanyahu felt like he needed something in order to help his political survival. So that is functioning. But what hasn't functioned is our government as a whole, we have not had a real budget passed in the country since 2019 because we just keep going from election to election. So every sector of society has suffered from education, to health, to social services, etc., because the government is a little bit automatic pilot. And so it's been very hard for it to be nimble and adjust to new situations because year after year, we don't really have a budget and the ministries which are supposed to be led for, you know, for four years by one political leader or another just keeps switching hands so frequently.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (17:50)  
Well, Alison, thank you so much for joining us, for sharing all of this perspective. Thank you for doing what you do qs a journalist. I know you're working extremely hard during this time. So thank you so very much for joining us and shedding some light.

Allison Kaplan Sommer  (18:03)  
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Seffi Kogen  (18:12)  
Now, it's time for our closing segment, Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is a very special guest, AJC CEO, David Harris. David, when you're talking with your family at your Shabbat table this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?

David Harris  (18:26)  
I've always enjoyed the Passover holiday. It always spoke to me. This extraordinary story of connection between an ancient Jewish journey to freedom and where we are today. And it also spoke to the larger context of everyone's yearning for freedom, including the civil rights movement. But then two things happened to me in my life that made an ancient exodus, become a very modern day exodus that I had the privilege to witness. The first began in 1974, when I traveled to the Soviet Union, and spent several months there living, and becoming involved with Soviet Jews. 

And I heard from them from their lips, the words "otpusti narod moy," in Russian, "shelach et ami," in Hebrew, "let my people go". And I watched their struggle, while I was in the Soviet Union, after I was expelled over many years in the Soviet Jewry movement, and I realized, we're witnessing a modern day attempted exodus from the slavery of the Kremlin, and the Soviet system. And ultimately, it's a story of liberation. every bit as much as the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt. And millions of Jews have left the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union no longer exists. The modern day Pharaohs were destroyed. 

And the second came a few years later, when I traveled to Ethiopia for the first time for my involvement quietly on Operation Moses to help Jews leave, There too, it was a modern day exodus of Jews, who had lived for thousands of years thinking they were the only Jews left on the planet. And then they discovered Israel. And Israel discovered them, and we discovered them. And together, we helped bring out this second modern day exodus. So, on this Shabbat, at this time of Passover, I think about the ancient exodus, and I think about the modern exodus, the story of Jews yearning to be free, of all people under slavery, under oppression, yearning to be free.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (20:28)  
Thank you, David. Indeed, the exodus seems to be a recurring theme in our tradition, which is part of what we'll talk about at our Shabbat table too. This week, Shabbat is a dress rehearsal for the Pashman family's rendition of the Four Questions. With grandparents now vaccinated, we will head to their house for Passover this weekend. I'm pretty sure my in-laws set the Seder table a month ago, right after their second doses. Since it's not 100% safe to celebrate, we will Zoom with a dozen other family members. But having my son and daughter at the same table this year is particularly special, a debut of sorts. You see, my six year old son Max is eager to read anything and everything placed in front of him these days. The Haggadah will be no exception. 

Though he is not the youngest in our family, my four year old daughter Rose has that honor, I envisioned this year as his debut reading the Four Questions. At Passover, we were always a reading family. I memorized very little Hebrew growing up. To this day, I struggle with the blessings over the Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. For us, the Haggadah was a script, albeit a familiar one. But a fabulous story that the family took turns reading together around the table. That was the fun part. Occasionally we read the transliteration of the Hebrew but even that was a struggle for our semi-observant family. We mostly stuck to the English. 

The other night, as we Pashmans wrapped up dinner and began to clean the kitchen, I announced with great fanfare that this would be the year Max would read the Four Questions, because he can. Standing over the kitchen sink, my husband began to sing the first verse of Mah Nishtana in Hebrew. And as the melody wafted through the kitchen, I watched my daughter close her eyes and start swaying. I was shocked that my husband could call up the Hebrew and the melody so easily. Now, when he tried to recall what the four questions actually are in English, he struggled a bit. Why is this night different, why do we eat Matzah, something about reclining . . . it was all a bit fuzzy. 

Max, meanwhile, offered up his own question. Why are we escaping Egypt in the first place? Rose asked her father for an encore. Music carves a deep memory. That's a line from a children's book I often read to my kids about the gift of song and it immediately crossed my mind in this moment. My husband was always the youngest, so he sang the Mah Nishtana every year. Of course it carved a date memory. I treasure the memories that my grandparents Passover celebrations. My grandmother's Passover chocolate mousse, searching for the Afikoman, which my grandfather often made sure was the chocolate covered variety, so the reward for finding it was extra sweet. Taking turns reading, tripping over the Hebrew, laughter. 

Now it's time to create our own memories. For the next few days, my children and I will rehearse the Mah Nishtana. When we sit down to celebrate my son will read the questions in English and perhaps do an exegesis on why we were escaping Egypt in the first place. That reference to the exodus I mentioned before, David. Though, there may or may not be a dinosaur in Max's version, because that's how he rolls. My daughter will undoubtedly sing at the top of her lungs with some dance moves, because that's how she rolls. It will be a duet by our two youngest, a Passover to remember. Chag Pesach . . . ugh, I shouldn't even try. Happy Passover. Seffi, what will you guys be talking about? 

Seffi Kogen  (23:34)  
The Festival of Passover or Pesach, as we call it, begins this Saturday night at sundown. Pesach celebrates the exodus of the Jews from slavery. In Hebrew, this journey is called yetziat mitzrayim, which literally means the leaving of Egypt. If I were just a bit more clever, I'd come up with a joke about the jumbo size container ship that was a little too eager to leave Egypt this week, and so ended up stuck sideways in the Suez Canal gumming up one of the world's most important and heavily trafficked waterways. But I want to focus instead on that phrase, yetziat mitzrayim. While Mitzrayim means Egypt, there's a homonym, meitzarim, that means straits, narrow places, confines or perhaps allegorically, challenges. 

The mystical work the Zohar notes the similarities of those two words and rabbis through the ages have suggested that this grammatical link is a way for each generation to view itself in the shoes of the Jews who left Egypt all those years ago. By focusing on the challenges we face in our lives, we can more readily empathize with our ancestors who left Egypt. And what better year than this one to think about emerging from challenges. One year ago, my family had our smallest seders ever. Didn't even think about going to synagogue because there was no synagogue to go to, and just generally live the life of a pandemic Pesach. Now, though, we're still not jumping back up to our normal full size Seder, we're all at least partially vaccinated as we, our country, our people and our world begin to emerge from this meitzar, this strait. 

The tribulation of a slave, like our ancestors in Egypt, is that their time is not their own. Over the past year, our construction hasn't really been about time, more about place. We've been cooped up in our houses, behind masks, away from our friends and loved ones. Now, as the vaccinations proceed apace, as the world thaws from winter and as spring begins, we begin to emerge once more, as our ancestors did all those years ago, into freedom. Shabbat Shalom, and a Chag Kasher V'Sameach.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (26:04)  
Shabbat Shalom.

David Harris (26:05)  
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.