Tehila Friedman’s Case for Radical Centrism

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An Israeli political tradition is the “maiden speech,” the first time a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, addresses her fellow lawmakers.

The maiden speech is usually treated as a sort of acceptance speech, where lawmakers talk about what brought them to the Knesset and thank their families and mentors. MK Tehilla Friedman, a soft-spoken woman who had not garnered much attention since entering the Knesset as part of the Blue and White coalition, delivered a fiery call for “a principled center” at a time when Israeli is riven by political polarization. In a time of increasing hatred between left and right, the speech quickly went viral being shared by people from left and right, garnering over 1.5 million views in less than a week in August 2020.

Key Text: “I speak in a gentle voice, I know, and you can be misled to think that my message is also calling to form a gentle and compromising center. But it’s the exact opposite. The center I’m talking about is a principled center, a zealot’s center, that’s not willing to compromise about its “centeredness.” About its responsibility for all of the residents of our country. About the role that it plays for all those who really want to live together.

It puts a limit on self-righteousness, a limit on selfishness. A center that is willing to sacrifice in the name of moderation and democracy, of a Judaism that makes place for others. A center that with its very being protects the rules that allow us to manage our differences without breaking us into pieces.”

  1. Like Peter Beinart’s controversial essay that came out at the same time as her speech, most of Tehilla’s Friedman’s vision is based on an interpretation of the circumstances that led Yochanan Ben Zakkai to establish Yavne. Yet Friedman takes a very different lesson from the events of 70 CE. In her first speech to the Knesset, the religious Zionist feminist MK called to establish a “covenant of moderates” with Haredi, Arab, Druze, Ethiopian and other minority MKs, to take the power away from the extremes on both sides and bring it to the radical center. In an era where people on both the far left and far right are the ones usually called extremists, with those in the center being classified as moderates, what does it mean to be a ‘zealot centrist’?
  2. For which values and beliefs should someone who describes themselves as a ‘radical centrist’ refuse to compromise?
  3. Referring to the pandemic, Friedman says, “In the middle of the Corona days, in the heart of a health, economic and social crisis the likes of which we’ve never experienced before, after a year and a half without an approved budget, with a troubling deficit and an economic depression, we have again those voices that would like us to chop off our brother’s head, that want to take every social wound and scar and scratch it until it bleeds, once again indifferent and scornful of the pain of others.We have to stop this. We need to stop trying to win. We shouldn’t let the first Israel impose their will over the second Israel, but we also shouldn’t let the second Israel impose their will over the first Israel. We must not try to beat each other.”Given that we live in a world where many view politics as something akin to a bloodsport with clear winners and losers, why do you think Friedman was so at pains to emphasize the purpose of politics as being nation building rather than winning or holding on to ideological purity at all costs?
  4. Why do you think her party’s decision to break an election promise by sitting with Netanyahu, even though they believed it was for the good of the nation, cost them so badly in the polls? What lesson can this teach us about what Israelis expect from their political leaders?
  1. Imagine you were one day elected to the Knesset. What vision for Israel would you want to realize? Write a 3 minute “maiden speech” to share with the class.
  2. Friedman disagrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu on many issues, but she still chose to join a coalition led by him, with hope of being able to influence change from within rather than criticise from the opposition. If you were faced with a similar choice, to join a coalition or project with someone whom you disliked in the hope you could make it work better, or boycotting a person because they stood against your values, which path would you take? Create a 3 minute speech outlining a dilemma you have faced that is similar to the one faced by Tehilla Friedman.
  3. Read the following poem “Miracles” written by Yehuda Amichai, who was known as Israel’s greatest modern poet:
    From a distance everything looks like a miracle but up close even a miracle doesn’t appear so. Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split only saw the sweaty back of the one in front of him and the motion of his big legs, and at most, a hurried glance to the side, fish of many colors in a wall of water, like in a marine observatory behind walls of glass.After quoting this poem from Yehuda Amichai in her speech, Tehilla Friedman says:“We live in a miracle, I’m the daughter of a Paratrooper, one of the liberators of Jerusalem. I live my life and raise my children in Jerusalem. I spend my day-to-day in the middle of the Prophets vision: elderly men and women living their lives, boys and girls playing in the streets. I thank God for the privilege of living in this miracle, and mainly I feel responsible for it, for my well-being, for its well-being, and for its wholeness, because my well-being is tied to its wholeness. I came here to be part of a leadership that is committed to the miracle called the State of Israel.”Like the people crossing the Red Sea in Yehuda Amichai’s poem, why do you think many Israelis forget sometimes that they are living in a miracle, and why was it important for Friedman to remind them to never take the existence of the modern State of Israel for granted?

    Write a poem or reflection that expresses gratitude for something many people take from granted (Eg: Having running water in your house, food to eat or clothes to wear).

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