A gadfly stings the tender flesh of the righteous

Sun Journal

Israel: Yosef "Tomy" Lapid helped make the influence of the ultra-religious a potent issue in recent elections.

June 05, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The super-hero of Israel's strident secularists is an irreverent, rotund pundit who parlayed public outrage over the increasing power of ultra-Orthodox Jews into a surprising electoral success in last month's election.

Yosef "Tomy" Lapid skewered Israeli politicians in newspaper columns and on raucous talk shows for almost 40 years. Now, he's one of them. The 67-year-old dean of Israeli talk-show personalities won election to Israel's parliament May 17 and resurrected a moribund political party in the process.

His strategy was simple -- exploit the social divide between the secular and the religious in the Jewish state. His message: End the undue influence of those Orthodox Jews who insist on religious control of Israeli life and government.

While other candidates bemoaned the state of the economy or raised concerns about Israel's security, Lapid ridiculed kosher dog food and a toilet-paper factory that proclaims it observes the Sabbath. Why, he demanded, do dog food, toilet paper or dishwashing soap need to be approved by the rabbinate or conform to strict dietary laws?

"These things are not edible. Therefore there is no reason to have a kosher certificate for them. I challenge any rabbi to show me in the Bible where kosher dog food comes into our religion," Lapid said. "I have to pay money for this nonsense?"

This was pretty tame stuff by Lapid's standards -- he once called a convicted, but prominent, politician "that man, that criminal, that gambler, that thief" to his face on live television. But leading Orthodox politicians accused Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated here at age 17, of being an anti-Semite.

In his newspaper columns, Lapid takes on the mundane and the profound. He calls leftish politicians "eggheads." In a desert casino recently opened by the Palestinian Authority near Jericho, he sees a sign of hope for the Israeli-Palestinian relations. He defends President Clinton's indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky -- "a chatterbox goose" -- even though he says Clinton is an "indefatigable sex fiend."

Lapid's campaign message against the ultra-Orthodox was direct -- "We have to stop them!" It resonated with thousands of voters who have grown increasingly resentful of the religious establishment's control of their lives on such diverse matters as store openings on Saturday and places of burial. Many Israelis also resent the military exemptions given to religious students and the stipends they receive for religious studies.

So they catapulted Lapid and five other members of the Shinui (Change) Party into the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "This certainly was the most meteoric career in Israeli political history," he says.

A lawyer by training, Lapid is now among those vying for a place in the Cabinet of prime minister-elect Ehud Barak, who also campaigned on a pledge to reduce the political and social perks for the ultra-religious. He wants to be the justice minister.

"Tomy Lapid's battle is the battle of many of us for survival of the basic Zionist tenets on which the state of Israel was founded," says Uriel Reichman, a Tel Aviv college professor who recruited Lapid to lead the floundering Shinui Party.

But Lapid's often vitriolic condemnation of the ultra-religious also helped increase their numbers in the parliament. Shas, the main political party of Orthodox Jews of North Africa, nearly doubled its seats in the Knesset.

Shas was a favorite Lapid target. When one of its leaders accused him of being an anti-Semite, the Holocaust survivor fired back, "I should be put in a concentration camp, right?"

An ultra-Orthodox newspaper railed about Lapid's "insatiable desire for drinking [ultra-Orthodox] blood." He received death threats, and he hired two body guards.

But when an ultra-Orthodox voter asked Lapid, "Why do you hate me so much," the candidate calmly replied, "I don't hate you. As a principle I don't hate Jews because I am a Holocaust survivor."

Lapid grew up in a "very Jewish" but "totally non-religious home" in Hungary where his family had relocated from Yugoslavia. His father was the president of the Bnai B'rith chapter in their town; his uncle headed the Jewish committee. His family did not observe the Jewish dietary laws. They went to synagogue only on the High Holy Days.

In his office in Tel Aviv, Lapid projects a warmer image than the pale-faced, blue-eyed pit bull of the talk-show circuit. He speaks softly, explaining that "religion has its place" in a liberal, Western-oriented, free and secular society. But it has "no right to impose its tenets on people who don't care" about religion.

B. Michael, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, harshly criticizes Lapid for mounting a one-issue campaign that "spread a culture of hate."

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