Israel is going to the polls on Tuesday. If the polls are accurate – as it was not always the case in the past – the next government will be a right-wing coalition and the Religious Zionist parties might play a key role. Simcha Rothman, an MK for the Religious Zionist Party, spoke to Rabbi Tuly Weisz, explaining to him that the right-wing religious zionists are coping with media bias in much the same way that American Evangelical Christians are.
Rothman is currently a member of the Knesset and fourth on the list of candidates for the Religious Zionist Party. A lawyer, Rothman founded the Movement for Governability and Democracy. He has been critical of the corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a leading voice in the fight against judicial activism and for the separation of powers in Israel. Toward this end, he campaigned for legislation to allow the government to override the Supreme Court.
Born into a religious family that made aliyah from Cleveland, Rothman was born in Israel but is a native English speaker. On Tuesday, Rabbi Weisz, the head of Israel365, had an in-depth conversation with the candidate.
Rothman explained that his work in legal reform leads him to study cases in US jurisprudence, most notably that of conservative supreme court judges.
Rabbi Weisz asked Rothman to explain the main issues facing the Religious Zionist parties.
“We need to address the Jewish identity of the State of Israel,” Rothman said. ”That is a very broad term but it has a lot of implications in areas like education and the public sphere. It can even affect the way we treat international affairs. We need to acknowledge that this Jewish entity is something that must be preserved. We understand the special connection between the nation, the land, and the Torah.”
Rothman explained that due to the broad nature of this approach, the starting point had to be justice reform.
“In Israel, every change faces obstacles from the court system. Whether it is Judea and Samaria, immigration, or housing prices, it all begins in the justice system. The obstacles arise because the values of the judges are so different from the values of Israelis. Israel is the only country in which the judges elect themselves. In the current system, we cannot make any changes in the judiciary because the judiciary has a veto on who can make these changes.”
Rabbi Weisz noted that there are elements within the religious zionist society that are shying away from voting for the Religious Zionist Party because of candidates that are considered extremist.
“It is very difficult to fight media bias,” Rothman responded, noting that he currently has a lawsuit for libel pending against the Jerusalem Post. “They claimed I supported a Jewish terrorist which was incorrect. I never did. This crosses a dangerous line.”
“I don’t consider myself or any of the other party leaders to be extremist. Ben Gvir has been labeled an extremist. I don’t agree with him on some issues which is why he is in a different party. But on most issues, I don’t think he is extremist at all, certainly no more than people in other parties.”
Rothman said that his party hopes to offer “a moderate unity government that lets the fringe be the fringe.”
“The only political choice that was being offered to the Israeli public was people that go to the extreme by joining Arab parties like Ra’am that openly support terrorism,” he remarked. “That was the only way they could form a government without the right wing.”
Rothman has been labeled an extremist by his opponents and by some in the media.
According to the MK however, those who consider him an extremist do not have a problem with sitting with groups “that are considered terrorists in other countries.”
“They are radical left-wing parties forming a radical left-wing government,” he said. “And they are considered legitimate. People who label me as an extremist aren’t against extremism. They accept the extreme left. They just don’t like my politics.”
In a recent speech, interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid blamed Rothman for the ongoing wave of Arab violence. He pointed to Rothman’s insistence on blowing the shofar in an area adjacent to the Temple Mount.
“I went to blow the shofar in a place that Jews have been praying for thousands of years. It is unlawful that the police prevent Jews from blowing shofar on the Temple Mount. So we were blowing the shofar from outside the Temple Mount so that people on the Temple Mount could hear. This is a matter of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
“Allowing Jews to blow the shofar in our holy site is one of the reasons we have a Jewish state,” Rothman said.
Before the holidays, several people, including Rothman and former MK Rabbi Yehudah Glick, went to the area to blow shofar.
“The police arrested the people blowing the shofar and took them to court nine times,” he pointed out. “Every time, the judges ruled against the police. I went three times as a member of Knesset with immunity to defend the human rights of the people there. The police claimed there would be riots and there were not. But a policeman attacked me and my spokesperson. I think that going there was part of my job.”
The MK said that he did not intend to be provocative.
“Sometimes there is a need to be provocative but I don’t think I was being provocative and the court did not think so. But even if I was, if an Arab attacked a Jew for blowing the shofar, the police need to deal with the person doing the attacking, not arrest the person expressing their religious rights.”
Rothman explained that one way to overcome media bias was to have Christian allies in the US.
“The same way that American evangelical Christians are being attacked in the media and have been portrayed as extremists, this is how the media is portraying the Religious Zionist parties in Israel,” he said. “We need to have people supporting us and explaining that.”
Rothman acknowledges that the relations between Jews and Christians have been historically problematic but that religious Zionists and evangelical Americans not only have their love for Israel in common but also share common obstacles.
“There are legitimate concerns about Christians who are trying to convince Jews to convert,” Rothman said. “So every time I address Christians that support Israel, I make sure that this is their motive and not missionizing Jews in Israel about Christianity. I don’t think this is a legitimate action. But once that is off the table, Christians and Jews, and even moderate Muslims, have a lot to learn from each other. We have a lot we can accomplish together, as long as they accept that this is the Jewish homeland, and as long as they accept each other.”
According to Rothman, religious people are demonized by people holding progressive ideas.
“Even around the world, monotheistic religions face the same challenges from progressive ideas and people that try to harass religious people,” he suggested. “In this regard, Israel has something to bring to the world. That is our role as the Jewish nation; to lead in this struggle.”
“From our side, we cannot deny a connection to Jerusalem for people who want to connect to Jerusalem,” Rothman said.
Rabbi Weisz asked Rothman what he would want the Christian Zionists in America to ask from a Republican candidate in the next presidential election.
“Primarily, I think sovereignty in Judea and Samaria is very important,” Rothman responded. “But I also think that in the past, both Democrat and Republican administrations were putting restraints on developing Jerusalem. Of course, sovereignty is important but even in Jerusalem where we have sovereignty, building remains an issue.”
Rothman said that it is a mistake for Israeli government to consult with the American government before building in Jerusalem.
“No country in the world would tell the American government where and how to build,” he pointed out. “In the same way, no American government should tell Israel where and how to build in its eternal capital of Jerusalem or in Judea and Samaria. These are decisions that should be made by the Israeli government for the prosperity of our country. Building in our country should not be an issue of foreign affairs.”
Rabbi Weisz noted that given the instability of recent governments, another election may be held in the near future.
“If you could only accomplish one thing in the Knesset, what would it be?” he asked.
Rothman reiterated his desire for reform of the justice system.
“If we can change the way we elect our judges, that will be a great accomplishment,” Rothman said. “This will take time. But once the judges are being elected by the parliament, we will have a more democratic system that is more accountable and we will see a change.”