The Jerusalem Post
Beyond the photo op
It’s most Israeli politicians’ undeclared dream. Beaming like melons, every new government’s ministers stand straight as bowling pins behind the president and prime minister for the photo op that announces their collective anointment as leader of the Jewish state.
Staged, frontal, lifeless and nonexclusive, these pix are photojournalism’s antithesis. Nationally, however, they are reassuring, sending a message of stability and continuity. This is of course beside the fact that for the politicians who populate them, these photos are certificates of importance, relevance and success.
Then again, what the politicians in these photos embody collectively is more difficult to detect, since most new governments are much like the ones they replace. This one isn’t.
MOST NEW governments see the replacement of several ministers, and the addition or subtraction of one or two small parties. When change is big, as it was when Labor lost power in 1977, the big thing about the photo is its number of new faces. In that case, 14 of its 17 ministers.
Still, the drastic change in 1977’s photo was partisan, namely, its domination by the nationalist circle that the previous establishment cast out.
Israelis were thus stunned to see in that photo, besides Menachem Begin himself, fellow Irgun veterans Haim Landau and Shmuel Tamir, as well as Eliezer Shostak, who was a Revisionist leader in prewar Ukraine.
Socially, however, that government was much like Labor’s governments, having included only two non-Ashkenazim – David Levy and Aharon Abuhatzera – which was half its number of retired generals.
The Lapid-Bennett government’s photo, by contrast, is an emblem of Israel’s achievements and failures in treating its sectarian disease.
THE FIRST and most obvious transition this photo reveals is about Israel’s Modern-Orthodox community.
Not only is the prime minister himself Modern Orthodox for the first time in Israel’s existence, the photo shows four more ministers wearing Modern Orthodoxy’s knitted skullcaps: Matan Kahana, Ze’ev Elkin, Chili Tropper and Elazar Stern. This is beside Orit Farkash-Hacohen, whose Modern Orthodoxy is not visible as she does not wear a skullcap.
This group is unique not only in its size and prominence, but in its affiliation, as it represents four different parties. Before Likud’s rise to power and also well after it, Modern-Orthodox Israelis had their own Knesset faction – the National Religious Party – and almost anyone who belonged to the community voted for it.
Naftali Bennett’s rise to the premiership, and the scattering of other Modern-Orthodox politicians in a variety of secular parties, reflect the end of this community’s sectarian behavior, a process that has been underway for decades, but now reached its full maturation, as the photo attests.
During the Labor-led era, Modern-Orthodox Israelis were part of the establishment, but removed from many of its quarters. Those days are gone. Observant Israelis have already headed the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mossad, the Israel Police, the Defense Ministry, Hebrew University, and the embassies in Washington and the UN, and have served as generals, combat pilots, and as commanders in the IDF’s Special Forces.
The days when this community lived under a glass ceiling are long gone, and that is why its historic party has effectively dissolved, before its leader left for a religious-secular alternative through which he became Israel’s first observant prime minister. The sector, he thus effectively said, is dead.
The new crop of ministers is an emblem of Israel’s social achievements, failures and tasks
LESS COMPLETE, but equally visible, is the feminist transition this photo reflects.
There are nine women in the new government, representing one third of its ministers and six of its eight parties. Their positions include the senior ministries of education and interior. This is unprecedented.
Yes, part of this is due to the absence of ultra-Orthodoxy’s maleonly parties, but mostly it reflects the steady erosion of Israel’s gender gaps. True, Israel has yet to reach Scandinavian standards on this front, but it’s also a light year ahead of that 1977 government, which had not one woman.
The same goes for the photo’s most visible and inspiring novelty, Energy Minister Karin Elharrar seated in the wheelchair in which she spends her days due to muscular dystrophy. Yes, much remains to be done regarding Israel’s treatment of its handicapped, but Elharrar, a 43-year-old mother of two who has been a prolific legislator, is proof that paraplegics in today’s Israel reach farther than they ever did before.
The same goes for the photo’s nonJews.
Yes, the destination on this front is the most elusive of all our social goals, as prejudice and discrimination remain rampant. Even so, with one Arab minister (Esawi Frej) and one Druze minister (Hamad Amar), and with Mansour Abbas slated to be a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, the photo offers a ray of light the morning after the worst ethnic riots in Israel’s history.
It was against this general backdrop that a member of the new opposition – former digital affairs minister Dudi Amsalem – charged that the new government is “Ashkenazi.” Fortunately, we have the photo, and also its protagonists’ bios, which indicate that a quarter of this government’s members are non-Ashkenazi Jews, almost their share of the overall population.
Even more happily, they include self-made Israelis like Yifat Shasha-Biton, a PhD in education who was born to a bus driver who immigrated from Morocco; Maj.-Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai, one of seven children born to a mother who arrived here from Iraq; and Pnina Tamano-Shata, who at age four was among 7,000 Ethiopian Jews who trekked via Sudan to the Jewish state, where she became a journalist, a lawyer, and the minister of absorption.
Such is this photo op’s rainbow coalition, which besides being socially diverse is also a collection of political antagonists who set out to prove that what they share is bigger than what they dispute, an aim which fills its detractors with fear, and the rest of us with hope.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019)