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Newly-minted Member of Knesset Tehila Friedman has Israelis fired up about political moderation – and it’s worth repeating

By Marcy Oster 

(JTA) – An Israeli political tradition is the “maiden speech,” the first time a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, addresses her fellow lawmakers.

The maiden speech is usually treated as a sort of acceptance speech, where lawmakers talk about what brought them to the Knesset and thank their families and mentors. So when Tehila Friedman turned the tradition on its head last week, delivering what she said “might very well also be my closing speech,” Israelis sat up and listened.

Friedman, a small and soft-spoken woman who had not garnered much attention since entering the Knesset this summer as part of the Blue and White coalition, delivered a fiery call for “a principled center” at a time when Israeli is riven by political polarization.

A Hebrew version of the speech has been viewed more than 1.5 million times, and a version with English subtitles released late last week is now also circulating widely.

Without mentioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any other contemporary politician by name, Friedman indicted the “trying to win” that has caused Israel to have three elections in the last year and a half. During an 11-minute speech that spanned Jewish history, Friedman exhorted Israelis to consider the lesson of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the moderate leader who led the Jews of Jerusalem to safety and, ultimately, continued existence after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Prior to entering politics, Friedman worked as an attorney and previously served as chair of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a nonprofit organization in Israel that focuses on education research and policy in the Religious Zionist community. Now, her speech has launched her to international prominence, much in the same way that Ruth Calderon, a former Knesset member, did when she used her maiden speech to deliver an impassioned defense of Jewish text study.

Friedman concludes her speech, choked up with emotion, “These are the days of the Third Temple. And exactly like the two that preceded it, it’s fragile. It’s flammable. It cannot be taken for granted. Its stability is our responsibility. Its existence depends on us. This is our watch.”

Tehila Friedman’ speech before the Knesset follows in its entirety:

In these past few weeks, since I arrived here at the Knesset, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the most important Jews in history. The man who at the last possible moment was able to save the Jewish people: from Jerusalem of the Temple that burns, to Yavne of the House of Study that unites, and was thus able to reinvent the Jewish people anew.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking of this rabbi, who lived in the heart of Jerusalem, in the middle of a terrible civil war, while outside the city walls the Romans were waiting for the right moment to enter and destroy everything.

A civil war that started as a disagreement about how to deal with the Romans, but turned very quickly into an identity war, a war of all against all. Whatever you thought about the Romans became what you are, whatever you thought about what to do in the situation – that became who you are. If I don’t agree with you, I’m against you. Absolutely. Until the blood starts running.

Hatred that inundated everything. In the name of hatred, knives were sharpened in the temple. In the name of hatred, the cellars that held the food that could help a city under siege were burned. In the name of hatred, famine spread, and with the famine came despair.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai wasn’t from the UN. He and his students were part of the conflict. They fought against the Zealots, but at some point he chose a different path. He understood that in a war among brothers everyone loses, and he took a surprising step, and addressed his most bitter enemy, the one who he believed was responsible for the upcoming destruction. Abba Sikra was his name, the leader of the Zealots in Jerusalem.

Abba Sikra also knew that a civil war is more dangerous than a foreign enemy, but this man who ignited the rebellion discovered that he could no longer control it. His people didn’t listen to him. The hatred he spread became stronger than him. Together the leader of the Zealots and the leader of the moderates managed to help Rabbi ben Zakkai escape Jerusalem, not to turn back the historical events, but to create something new, establish the conditions for the day after.

For the opening speech of every MK there are certain norms. I’m supposed to tell about different stages of my life, thank the people that helped me become who I am, and share something about the hopes and dreams that in their name I came to this place. But my opening speech might very well also be my closing speech, and the relevance of the dreams and plans I came with are threatened by this ongoing chaos, the turmoil and devastation of a fourth round of elections.

For this reason I will deviate from the norm. I apologize to my mother and father who are here and truly molded who I am, to my life partner, and to all my partners in this journey that I would be expected to mention. But I feel obligated to say something else instead, it seems to me also in their names.

Two thousand years have passed since Rabbi Yohanan. We came back to Jerusalem, we built a country. But right now, in the middle of a massive political crisis, we find ourselves once again in a frightening moment. A terrible plague spreads wildly outside, and inside the same destructive desire to defeat each other, the same blindness, the same cancerous hatred that causes us to spend most of our energy in internal conflict. And again, like then, the reserves of trust are being burnt to the ground. We attack our institutions of government, we endanger in an unimaginably irresponsible way the very existence of this shared home.

In the middle of the Corona days, in the heart of a health, economic and social crisis the likes of which we’ve never experienced before, in the middle of a crisis of our institutions, after a year and a half of inactivity, without an approved budget, with a troubling deficit and an economic depression, we have again those voices that would like us to chop off our brother’s head, that want to take every social wound and scar and scratch it until it bleeds, once again indifferent and scornful of the pain of others. Three times in a year and a half you have tried to win, to establish oneself as the total winner, to defeat.

We have to stop this. We need to stop trying to win. We shouldn’t let the first Israel impose their will over the second Israel, but we also shouldn’t let the second Israel impose their will over the first Israel. We must not try to beat each other.

I’m Jewish, religious, a Religious Zionist, a nationalist, a feminist, a Jerusalemite. I grew up into a particular tradition and language. I grew up in a home, community and tradition that shaped who I am. There’s a lot of truth, and good and beauty in my world, but not all the truth, not all the beauty, not all the good. I don’t want everyone to become like me, I don’t want everyone to believe in the same things as I do, because I know that in other communities and worlds there’s truth and beauty and good, and that I have a lot of things to learn from them.

There’s a lot of things I need to learn about Mizrahi Traditionalism, from FSU Jews, from Ethiopian Jews, from the descendants of those early pioneers, from the individualist liberals, from the Haredi, from the Arabs, from the Druze, from the Bedouin, from Diaspora Jews. It’s true that part of these communities hold beliefs and values and actions that I oppose. Part of those are threatening to me, as a woman, as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a religious person.

But I know that in each of these communities, truly in each one, that although there are those who believe in their righteousness, who are waiting for people to see that they’re solely right, and who plan to rule and control. There are also those who understand that the differences between us aren’t going to go away, that we have been destined to live together, and that is the challenge of our lives,

Along with them, I am suggesting the formation of an alliance of the moderates: with all the forces from all the communities that understand the challenge called living together, to bring back the forces from the extremes that ruin everybody’s lives and to build a shared center.

I speak in a gentle voice, I know, and you can be misled to think that my message is also calling to form a gentle and compromising center.

But it’s the exact opposite. The center I’m talking about is a principled center, a zealot’s center, that’s not willing to comprise about its “centeredness.” About its responsibility for all of the residents of our country. About the role that it plays for all those who really want to live together. It puts a limit on self-righteousness, a limit on selfishness. A center that is willing to sacrifice in the name of moderation and democracy, of a Judaism that makes place for others. A center that with its very being protects the rules that allow us to manage our differences without breaking us into pieces.

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote many years ago about three forces that are present among us: the holy, the Jewish people, and humanity. In other words: religion, nationalism and humanism. Rav Kook himself was a person who was holy in his entirety, but he knew how dangerous is an all-encompassing holiness, the absolute nationalist or the total humanist. No one is completely right. A healthy society is a society which maintains all three forces, not only that they restrain one another. We need each of them in their own right.

In the six weeks I’ve been in this house I’ve heard endless mocking and scorn against whole parts of Israeli society, I heard hopes for “them” to disappear; and for us to be able to rule without limits.

I want to tell you something, they won’t disappear, Take us into as many elections as you want, no one will disappear. If we continue to try to beat each other, the only thing we will manage to beat is our children’s future. The only thing destroyed will be our mutual respect, our social resilience, the things that allow us the make this miracle named Israel possible.

We live in a miracle, I’m the daughter of a Paratrooper, one of the liberators of Jerusalem. My father-in-law was a Paratrooper, one of the liberators of Jerusalem. I live my life and raise my children in Jerusalem. I spend my day-to-day in the middle of the Prophets vision: elderly men and women living their lives, boys and girls playing in the streets. My everyday life is a dream that seemed impossible, one that I have never taken for granted.

Yehuda Amichai taught us: From far away everything looks like a miracle, but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like one. Even a crosser of the divided Red Sea saw only the sweating back of the walker in front of him

I am living in a miracle of which I am aware. I thank God for the privilege to live in this miracle. And for this reason I feel responsible for it, for my wellbeing and for its wellbeing, because my wellbeing is dependent on its wellbeing.

I came here to be part of a leadership that is committed to the miracle called the State of Israel. Leadership that doesn’t want to avenge past wrongs, to care only for our people, or to be always in the right; but rather a leadership that wants to repair and to rebuild to take care of those who voted for them in the exact same way as to those who didn’t. That doesn’t ridicule the pain of those who have lost, that believes in our connections one to another. A leadership that develops exceptional governance that will act for reconciliation and reconstruction, a leadership that doesn’t want to erase anybody.

I’m waiting and praying for a leadership not of “killers” but of healers. I believed in the value of a unity government. I still believe that is the only way to establish the foundations for the next stage in the country’s life, to save us from destruction, to reinvent ourselves anew.

I dedicated a big part of my life and my career to create the connections that would allow the creation of a new Jewish and Israeli center. I believe that our responsibility and duty is to do as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai – create an alliance of moderates, a new Israeli center that defines itself around what we are for, and not what we are against.

These are the days of the Third Temple, And exactly like the two that preceded it, it’s fragile. It’s flammable. It cannot be taken for granted. Its stability is our responsibility. Its existence depends on us. This is on our watch. Thank you.

Main Photo: Member of Knesset Tehila Friedman (Screenshot)

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