Israel's champion of lawmakers

The man who defeated Zvulun Orlev for the leadership of Jewish Home doesn't have his legislative experience.

The ballots cast for president of the United States commanded the attention of most Israelis last night, but it was not the only election held yesterday which will have a significant impact on their lives in the years to come.

Closer to home, tens of thousands of Israelis voted in the primaries for the political party, The Jewish Home. In that race, veteran parliamentarian Zvulun Orlev lost to young upstart Naftali Bennett and announced his retirement from party politics immediately thereafter.

Once the 19th Knesset is elected on January 22, 2013, Orlev's absence will be palpable. His archaic moniker may not be a household name outside of Israel, or even inside of it, and his silver three-quarter-combover, which surpasses even the prime minister's, would be unrecognizable to political pundits who don't live here. He has never attracted international attention. But ever since Orlev entered the Knesset at the turn of the millennium, he has been its most prolific legislator.

In his first term, he was dubbed by his fellows, "the champion of lawmakers", because 19 bills he co-authored became law. In this last term, he surpassed that number, getting 21 of his own bills passed. In the last year, 67 complaints were submitted to the national ombudsman by Knesset members; 46 of these originated with Orlev. And ever since right-wing think-tank, Institute for Zionist Strategies, began issuing annual evaluations of Knesset members' performances, Orlev has consistently topped their "Zionist Legislation Scale".

Some of the legislation that Orlev advanced in the last four years demonstrates a keen social conscience. He proposed laws that: would forbid the use of children in sexually-charged advertising; would criminalize sexual assaults even when its victims don't outwardly vocalize their objections; and would ratchet up punishments for husbands who refuse to grant their wives divorces. Other bills that Orlev shepherded through the Knesset demonstrate his concern for different disadvantaged groups. 

Religious agenda 

But a large measure of Orlev's catalogue of laws advanced his own religious agenda. One of his bills proposed that academic universities and institutions of Torah study should be funded by the government in equal measure. Another Orlev bill would make it a crime to try to convince a person to accept a different set of religious beliefs. Orlev also voted against proposals to permit civil marriage, to permit public transportation on the Sabbath, and to punish religious zealots who forcefully exclude women from the public sphere.

Some of his bills reflect his preference for nanny-state over-parenting: requiring all apartment windows to be barred if there are any pre-teens in the house; forcing pedestrians to wear neon reflective vests when walking late at night; and empowering the Interior Minister to reject baby names that are deemed to be culturally inappropriate. All three of these bills were introduced in the wake of tragic incidents - babies falling out of high-rises, cars crashing into cyclists, and parents naming their progeny after Facebook features. But whether Israel's illness is worse than Orlev's cure is a matter of debate. 

Other Orlev bills were more obvious infringements on people's freedoms, and they offered fewer benefits. One Orlev proposal would force Israeli internet service providers to reveal the identities of users so that they can be sued for any offensive comments they make. Another bill would outlaw the use of any symbol associated with Nazi Germany in an act of public protest. A third bill would prohibit public displays of nudity, even if they are devoid of sexual context. The latter was an effort to head off international artist Spencer Tunick, who planned to photograph a thousand naked Israelis bathing in the Dead Sea simultaneously.

Orlev's most outstanding accomplishments from the 18th Knesset were the passage of two laws that are already having a chilling effect on dissenting voices in Israel. His Libel Law multiplied by a factor of six the amount of money journalists must pay politicians who feel slighted by their criticism. His Boycott Law exposes those who call for economic sanctions on Israeli companies operating in the occupied territories to unlimited lawsuits from Jewish settlers. In both cases, the plaintiffs are not even required to prove that they have suffered any injury.  

Don’t despair 

But the most reactionary bills that Orlev proposed during the 18th Knesset aimed to eliminate non-Zionist ideas from the public discourse altogether. One of these would require members of Knesset not only to swear allegiance to the State of Israel, but also to swear that the state is "Jewish" and "democratic". Another Orlev bill would criminalize any peaceful act, even speech, that suggests that Israel should not be "Jewish", or that it should not be "democratic".

Of course, it is only the first of these two characteristics that actually concerns Orlev and his fellow ultra-nationalists. Untold numbers of public officials have openly called for the state to adopt Halacha as the law of the land and for the ostensibly secular State of Israel to become a Jewish theocracy. The Israeli Justice Minister is among them. None of these public officials have even been cut from the public payrolls. It is clear that Orlev only wants to prosecute people who reject Israel's characterization as a "Jewish state".

But what is a "Jewish state"? If I agree that a Jewish language, Hebrew, should be an official language of the state, and that the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, should be a national day of rest, but I don't believe that Jewish people should receive preferential treatment over non-Jewish people when immigrating to Israel, or buying land in Israel, or in any other way? What if I don't mind if Jewish cultural customs are grandfathered into civil law, but I don't want Jewish religion officials to decide who I'm even allowed to marry?

At the time that he proposed these bills, American journalist Max Blumenthal I interviewed Orlev in his Knesset office and asked him exactly what political positions would constitute "negating the Jewish character of the state". He wouldn't answer us, saying that this issue would only be decided in Knesset committee. In other words, Orlev believes that some speech is so traitorous that it deserves to be criminalized - he dubbed it "verbal terror" - but he is not willing to specify which words may not be uttered.

In fact, the Jewish Home party, and its forerunner, the National Religious Party, have, since Israel's inception, lobbied against any separation between synagogue and state. This summer, Orlev even unveiled an apocalyptic proposal to build a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in place of the Dome of the Rock. "The Muslim world will surely start a world war if the State of Israel and the Jewish people remove the mosques from the Temple Mount," said Orlev, "but history teaches that there's no need to despair."

Now that Orlev is bowing out of national politics, it is unclear how many more of his proposals will be picked up and passed by the Knesset assembly, in an attempt to silence disgruntled Palestinian citizens of Israel and their secular Jewish Israeli allies. The man who defeated Orlev for the leadership of Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, doesn't have his legislative experience. But if Bennett doesn't take over Orlev's mantle as the Zionist "champion of lawmakers", it is near-certain that there will soon be other contenders for that title.

About the author

David Sheen writes articles and makes films about the economy, ecology and equality. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Jaffa, Israel.