I met Israel’s newly elected Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at the offices of the Minister of Justice, a rather nondescript building, located in East Jerusalem. Her office is spacious but simply furnished. The wall behind her desk is filled with books. Her desk was clear except for some platters of vegetables and carafes of water for the many people she sees each day.
Minister Shaked is a secular member of a religious political party. She is both Ashkenazi and Iraqi. She has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and worked at Texas instruments before entering politics in 2006. She is tall and slender and yes, beautiful. She has been attacked for her looks as if a woman blessed genetically with beauty cannot be intelligent. Photo-shopped images of Shaked as a Nazi have been posted on social media. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once compared her to Adolf Hitler. Minister Shaked is bright, beautiful and full of brawn. Borrowing a metaphor from football-she is a triple threat.
The Minister speaks English very well. My conversational Hebrew is at best, sad. I think we too often take for granted that government officials whose first language is not English, should be able to speak English fluently. That attitude opens the door to misunderstanding. Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the Begin Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University Israel accompanied me to the interview as I expected there to be some problems in understanding each other. Idioms, similies and metaphors differ from one language and culture to another. Mrs. Shaked showed great respect by turning to Dr. Kedar to ensure that we understood each other.
I came to the interview with concerns about the mood of the people of Israel. I’d just spent time with some grandmothers who’d expressed exhaustion over the non-stop wars. They’d watched their husbands go off to war, their sons and now their grandsons. I spoke to young people in Tel Aviv just out of the IDF who no longer concerned themselves with war but felt despair over the fact that the cost of living was too high. They spend up to 60% of their income on rent.
“We must fight without fear and without mercy against our enemies”
I asked Mrs. Shaked, a wife and mother of two, what hope she could offer to these people She said “It is not despair. Israel needs to accept that there will be no peace in the near future. The reality is that the Middle East is on fire. It has collapsed. Radical Islam surrounds Israel. But Israel remains a light-house of democracy, humanity and the economy in the darkness. In the meantime, Israel must manage the conflict because that is the only option available for now. In the foreseeable future the status quo is going to remain”
And then she added, “We must fight without fear and without mercy against our enemies.”
Mrs. Shaked has grown up in a country at war. There hasn’t been one day of peace, be it war or violent acts of terror on civilians, random rocket fire and now BDS. While I was in Israel, rockets were fired in Ashkelon and a number of terrorist attacks were thwarted; others were not. Friday June 19 a young man was shot dead by a terrorist near the Dolev community in Judea/Samaria. On Sunday June 21 at the Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City an Israeli Border Police officer in his 20s was stabbed in the neck by an 18-year-old Palestinian terrorist.
Mrs. Shaked then responded to the concerns I had expressed about the cost of living by young Israelis. I had read that Prime Minister Netanyahu had already made this issue a priority by appointing Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon.
The Minister explained: The rent issue is the most important economic issue. Finance Minister Kachlon has been put in charge. We are in good hands. He will be co-ordinating with all the authorities dealing with the planning and building. fFormer Knesset Minister, Uri Ariel from the Bayit Yehuda Party had started work on building many more residential units in order to the problems. If requested I will assist.”
Mrs. Shaked is also tackling debt. Like Canada and the USA, many people are drowning in debt. I spoke to a young man, out of the IDf, working two and sometimes three jobs Minister Shaked explained that in Israel the majority of people can’t “close the month:” they are in overdraft every month. She plainly stated that unfortunately, this is common in Israel. I have heard from Israelis from all walks of life that living expenses in Israel are very high and salaries can’t keep up with expenses.
The Minister then spoke about one particular group who are in deep financial trouble and need more help. She has proposed a bill to provide that help. “In Israel there are between 30-40 thousand people who have so much debt, personal or to the tax authority and the interest on those debts has grown wildly. They have small salaries and no assets . Their monthly pay only covers interest and debts They can no longer open a bank account, obtain a credit card or open a business. We, as a society need to help those who are suffering the most. We proposed a new to wipe off their debts, as a one -time event, according to what was accepted on Shnat Shmita (Note:For those not familiar with this Jewish term it refers to the seventh year in a seven-year cycle during which land in Israel must lie fallow and debts are canceled) so that they will be able to go back to normal life. It will give them hope.”
We then talked about the treatment of Arab Israelis. I had spoken to Khaled Abu Toameh a prominent, well-respected Arab journalist who writes about Israel and the Middle East. He had expressed concern about the treatment of Israeli Arabs who consider themselves loyal citizens of Israel, acknowledge living a better life than Arabs outside Israel, but still feel they are not being treated equally. He fears if their concerns are not met they might pose a threat to the country.
Minister Shaked responded: “Israel is promoting Arab rights, freedoms and education. Naftali Bennett, education minister, is giving more money to Arab local authorities to improve their opportunities because Israel wants all her citizens to do well. They must be able to be part of the working force and the economy. Arab Muslims who do well in Israel hopefully will overcome the call of the extremist groups because they will realize that life is good in Israel for their families.”
She has also addressed the concerns of the many Christian Arabs who are Zionists and were on the receiving end of threats and violence because of their willingness to be part of Israeli society by joining the IDF. She has been in touch and works closely with them in their efforts.
World-wide BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) campaign
The conversation turned to the negative stories about Israel, especially the world-wide BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) campaign. Prior to entering politics Mrs. Shaked had established “My Israel” to share the stories of Israel. She told Haaretz “To boycott Israel because of its policies and because Israel wants to defend itself is not only anti-Zionist…it’s 21st century anti-Semitism.” In her speech June 8 she said Israel is moving from a defensive tactic to an offensive tactic and that BDS has nothing to with the Palestinians.
Minister Shaked acknowledged that “in general, Israel did not put enough energy and money into Hasbara (public relations). Israeli governments did not see it as strategic.” Recently she said, “The battlefield of public democracy is far more important to the existence of the State of Israel than a tank battalion or an Apache helicopter.”
A new unit in the strategic affairs department to counter the BDS movement will be led by Gilad Erdan, information minister and public security minister, with assistance from Naftali Bennett and Minister Shaked. The focus will be on using economic measures and the courts to combat foreign efforts to boycott Israel.Minister Shaked recently spoke about her plans. The Ministry is preparing to file lawsuits against activists who call for blacklisting the Jewish state.According to Tazpit News Agency, Erdan will have a budget of 100 million NIS (approximately 26 million $US)
When Mrs. Shaked was a parliament member she proposed a bill similar to the USA Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) which will require foreign countries funding projects in Israel to pay taxes and obey disclosure laws. As Minister she continues to work on the bill. She made clear that she will not tolerate “haters.”
I asked Mrs. Shaked about Israel’s relationship with Canada. She had been in the Knesset when Prime Minister Harper spoke. “Israel sees Canada as one of the best allies of Israel, accepting the country without pre-conditions. That declaration of friendship gives power and strength to Israel. Prime Minister Harper is one of the only non-hypocritical leaders who stood up for our common values.”
Minister Shaked said that history will judge her generation by the steps they take now; will they be able to let go of dreams which are no longer relevant and at the same time create a new appreciation for Israel in the world.