An Era Passes – Tommy Lapid dies at age 77

A champion of a secular Israel, who opposed the growing influence of the religious-national right but who may have inadvertently invigorated its growing and purposeful strength, has died Sunday in a Tel Aviv hospital.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who suffered a heart attack a few months ago, was admitted to hospital on Friday. He died today of cancer, according to news reports.

He is the man who once said, as Minister of Justice in 2004, that photos of a Palestinian woman trying to salvage something from the ruins of her IDF-razed home in Rafah made him think of his own grandmother who suffered under the Nazis.

Born 77 years ago in the former Yugoslavia, Lapid was a prominent journalist who headed the secular ‘Shinui” (“Change”) party. Israel, Lapid said, should be a Jewish state with freedom of — and from — religion.

“I don’t mind them carrying on their religion but I do mind when they try to impose their views on the secular majority in this country”, Lapid said of the religious-national right. “I think Israel should be a modern, Western civilisation and not a medieval ghetto”.

The current Shinui platform states that Israel should be “Jewish, Democratic, Zionist and Liberal”. It also states that the party will “fight religious coercion”, and believes in “separation of religion and state, without reducing the ‘Jewishness’ of the country. Religious belief will not be legislated nor will it be financed by the state. Our party believes in civil marriages (and divorce) – public transport on festivals and Shabbat and equal rights for the various Jewish religious streams. We will cancel the Tal law which differentiates in the conscription of religious and non religious citizens”.

In this last provision, there appears to be a convergence of aims between Shinui and its religious-national opponents.

Shinui was the largest winner in the 2003 general elections, winning nearly as many Knesset seats as the Labour party — but left the ruling coalition in December 2004 in a dispute over funding of religious institutions. Shinui then spilt in the run-up to 2006 elections, in the aftermath of a major shift of Israeli political alliances that surrounded Israel’s 2005 “Disengagement” from Gaza, and no longer has any representation in the Knesset.

In between, Lapid served as Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, then resigned from political life after Shinui split before the 2006 elections. He then became chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial council. Lapid was himself a Holocaust survivor who had a number of family members, including his father and grandmother, perish in Nazi concentration camps prior to the end of World War II.

As Justice Minister, Lapid made news headlines by opposing, in a May 2004 cabinet meeting, the destruction of Palestinian homes in Rafah during an IDF operation in southern Gaza. After the cabinet session, Lapid told Israel Radio that “I did think, when I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some floor tiles for her medicines – I did think, ‘What would I say if it were my grandmother?’ ” In the interview with Israel Radio, Lapid said it made him “sick” that the army was considering demolishing as many as 2,000 Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp to expand an Israeli-patrolled zone along the Egyptian border.

Plans to destroy Palestinian homes in Rafah are still alive, as former IDF commanders have explained to journalists on several recent occasions. Reserve Major-General Yom-Tov Samia, former commander of the Southern front, said at a recent briefing to journalists in Jerusalem that he had even been willing to help Palestinian families living in Rafah, which has grown on both sides of the now-walled Egyptian-Gaza border, to move their furniture if they would be willing to move several hundred meters away from the border to create a sort of supervisable sterile zone that could more easily be monitored by the IDF.

More recently, Lapid said in a weekly commentary on Israel Radio in early 2007, after airing of video footage showing a Palestinian woman being viciously verbally attacked through the iron bars on the veranda of her downtown Hebron home by a neighboring Israeli woman settler – who among other things called the Palestinian woman a “Sharmuta”, (“whore”), that what was happening in Hebron reminded him of persecution endured by Jews in his native Yugoslavia on the eve of World War Two. “It was not crematoria or pogroms that made our life in the diaspora bitter before they began to kill us, but persecution, harassment, stone-throwing, damage to livelihood, intimidation,
spitting and scorn,” Lapid said in his radio commentary.

After the widespread airing of this footage, Israel’s mainstream politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then also chimed in to denounce the Israeli woman settler’s behavior as “shameful”.

But, Israeli religious-nationalist commentators have accused Lapid of “shamelessly playing on sterotypes similar to those which appear in Nazi and other anti-Semitic press”.

Meanwhile, the religious-national right has been organizing. It has moved away from a preoccupation with religious life and a study of the scriptures, and sent many of a generation of yeshiva students – not a few of whom are American by birth, and for whom a pioneer ethic has a doubly patriotic resonance — out to settle the West Bank, and the same time to serve into the Israeli Defense Forces, where a number have now reached high ranks.

These soldier-settler-scholars appear to have been inspired in part on the transformation in the American military, which formerly chose generals who relied on their charismatic personalities and “seat-of-the-pants” instincts, but which in recent decades has been sending its most promotable (and certainly more compliant) officers off to become more multi-dimensional leaders by doing stints of academic study in post-graduate and doctoral institutions, in American service academies and internationally.

The current stated aim for these soldier-settler-scholars is to take over the government in Israel – and they are gaining in strength and political power.