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A Conversation With Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Firebrand Minister of Justice

The right-wing’s rising young female political superstar is unapologetic about Orthodox conversions, Palestinian violence, and J Street’s duplicity

Liel Leibovitz
November 06, 2015
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ayelet Shaked poses for a portrait on February 24, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ayelet Shaked of the Bayit Yehudi party is the newly appointed Justice Minister.Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ayelet Shaked poses for a portrait on February 24, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ayelet Shaked of the Bayit Yehudi party is the newly appointed Justice Minister.Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Ayelet Shaked is an anomaly in Israeli politics. She’s a successful female politician in a landscape governed almost entirely by the male graduates of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite units. She’s a secular woman who had ascended the ranks of a religious party. And she’s a computer programmer who found herself, after a brief and meteoric rise, as Israel’s minister of justice.

Shaked has used her position and her telegenic presence to promote a host of controversial measures, from advocating to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorism to scrutinizing left-wing nonprofit organizations that receive large sums of money from European governments to promote causes like BDS. Each of these measures won her precious moments in the limelight—and plenty of criticism. Yet, oddly for a politician, she seems genuinely unmoved by public opinion. She speaks with the same unguarded passion that catapulted her from a tireless grassroots campaigner for right-wing causes—against the biased liberal media, against Israeli artists boycotting the settlements, against the illegal African immigrants who cross the Israeli border in search of shelter and work—to the pinnacle of Israeli politics.

Her candor is real. After having served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office director between 2006 and 2008, Shaked eventually found it hard to keep her criticism of the Likud party private, choosing instead to abandon her political home and join The Jewish Home, the religious Zionist party led by her friend and political partner Naftali Bennett. Her outspoken opinions and assertive style first won her a seat in the Knesset and, eventually, her own portfolio, not to mention the disdain of many in Israel’s media and academic elites.

The ire of her ideological opponents wasn’t far from the minister’s mind when we met last month at her hotel suite in Washington, D.C. She had just finished speaking before hundreds of Israeli-Americans, brought together by the Israeli American Council. Or perhaps “speaking” is a misleading term: Shaked was interviewed on stage by Israeli TV anchor Dana Weiss, who delighted at subjecting the young minister to an all-female Israeli modern-day version of Frost/Nixon. Shaked held her own, tackling one tough question after another. Back in her quarters, shortly before midnight, she seemed relieved to be away from the stage. Hers is the kind of politics that works best one-on-one, and she spoke candidly about everything from her disdain for J Street to her strong opinions on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was too tired to struggle in English, even though her command of the language is good. The translation below is mine.

You’ve had a meteoric political rise. Is there anything about your trajectory that truly surprised you?

I really don’t know. You know, a lot of people ask me all these questions, and I don’t even stop to think about it. I didn’t think I’d be justice minister within three years, naturally, or a member of the cabinet, but it happened. Naftali Bennett and I have a method in life: We believe in seizing opportunities.

Speaking of seizing opportunities, are there any you can see on a political horizon that, otherwise, seems pretty grim?

I don’t see anything ground-breaking going down. I think that all around us, all over the Middle East, we’re witnessing very meaningful and tumultuous events. If we were speaking in English, I would say that “the Middle East is having some profound changes during the last years.” The entire region is shifting, and the nation states all collapse. It’s a tribal landscape now, and every bit of territory abandoned by the West is seized by radical Islam. So we really have no other choice than to continue and manage the conflict.

And this is where your party’s so-called Stability Plan comes into play?

Yes. That’s even in the longer term. If you ask me how I think the Israeli-Arab conflict should be resolved, I would say that we must annex Area C, which is home to 400,000 Jews and 90,000 Arabs, and have Areas A and B become some sort of confederation with Jordan. Jordan, too, is undergoing a turbulent time, so we must wait and see it stabilize.

One of the more popular opinions you hear both in the United States and in Israel calls for the annexation of Area C and the erection of a large wall, with Israel then defending itself against whatever may come, even if it’s a repeat of the missile attacks from Gaza.

You want to know why that’s wrong? Because the perimeter around Gaza consists of kibbutzim and moshavim around Gaza, and the perimeter around Judea and Samaria consists of Jerusalem and Kfar Saba. So this approach is rather naïve. I’m also not a big believer in walls being a solution for everything. Down south, by the way, we built a big fence in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Africa from entering Israel, and they would simply put up a ladder and jump over the fence. So a fence isn’t a solution. It can slow someone down, but it’s not a solution. We’ve already attempted this sort of withdrawal in Gaza, and it proved to be a failure. I don’t think we need to fail again in Judea and Samaria.

From a political standpoint, do you think that this idea of having no choice but continuing to manage the conflict is something people are ready to accept? It sounds hopeless.

I think that in Israel people get that. Even my left-wing friends in the media understand these days that there’s going to be no traction with Abu Mazen and that we’re not going to have a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. In Israel there’s no problem; we realize that we have no choice but to fight on.

The problem is with the Americans and the Europeans who continue to insist on this paradigm of a Palestinian state here and now, and who continue to insist that the settlements are the root of the conflict, which is just an utter lack of understanding of what this conflict really is about. Just look at this recent wave of knife violence: It has nothing to do with the settlements. It’s a blood libel, really, promoted by the Islamist Movement in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and arguing that Israel wants to destroy Al Aqsa and rebuild the Jewish temple. That’s how they get people in the streets, by trying to turn a conflict between two nations into a conflict between religions. I just feel bad that the international community, Europe and the United States, are just stuck in the ‘90s.

Will Israel continue and engage in conflict with Europe and the United States as well? Or do you think the rest of the world will eventually come to see Israel’s point of view?

Look, it’s going to be more difficult in Europe. In the United States, it depends in large part on the next administration, on who’s going to be the next president.

Do you have any preferences?

(Laughing) I would rather not meddle in the domestic politics of the United States.

But for now you have the Obama Administration, and John Kerry is trying to facilitate some sort of resolution. Is he just wasting his time?

On the one hand, I appreciate John Kerry’s efforts. I know he really cares. On the other hand, the administration’s equivocation between Israelis and Palestinians, especially during this latest round of violence, is very upsetting. The Palestinian Authority continues to incite, continues with its blood libels. The entire world saw Abu Mazen’s lies about how Israel allegedly killed that 13-year-old Palestinian boy terrorist. And yet, no one is pounding on the table saying to Abu Mazen ‘stop it.’ The Palestinians continue with their terrible incitement on TV and on social networks and in classrooms. Until that stops, until they cleanse their educational system and their media of this terrible anti-Semitic incitement against Israelis and Jews, nothing will happen.

And there’s nothing Israel can do in the meantime?

There is. But when I think of the Obama Administration, stopping Palestinian incitement ought to have been their first priority. It wasn’t, because they have this naïve notion of the Middle East. What should Israel do, then? First better hasbara; our hasbara isn’t good enough, and we also need more intensive diplomatic initiatives. We shouldn’t be idle. We’re also this high tech empire, so we should work the social networks and make sure our side of the story is represented. Our work is cut out for us.

Let’s assume for a minute you were elected prime minister. What else would you do to curb the violence?

Ever since the dawn of Zionism, we’ve always had to deal with waves of violence. When I talk about managing the conflict, I’m also talking about knowing how to address these currents. You have to know how to react on time and with force, which, by the way, is precisely what the government is doing at the moment. When it comes to terrorists, their homes will be razed, their citizenship will be revoked, and their property will be redistributed. We’re pushing a simple agenda: It really doesn’t pay to be a terrorist.

Do you really believe that revoking the citizenship of a 15-year-old boy who runs out to the street with a knife to stab an Israeli is going to make any difference?

I think the parents of that boy will be moved to take more responsibility for their children. Our goal is to get the parents to control their kids. But as I said before, I really think we need to take over the social networks, even the Arabic ones, and fight the Palestinian lies. We’re not aggressive enough about that.

You’ve also led a series of legislative efforts to curb left-leaning non-for-profits funded by foreign organizations. Why?

What’s happening today is that foreign nations, especially European ones, see that they can’t really influence Israel diplomatically, so they’ve found a workaround in funneling huge sums to these very radical left non-profits. Some of these non-profits indirectly support BDS, and some, like Breaking the Silence, cause tremendous damage to Israel by telling half-truths which, sometimes, are worse than lies. As Israel’s Justice Minister, I have a spreadsheet on my desk showing exactly how much money each country is giving to which Israeli organizations. And I focus on divestment, pure and simple. I talk to these countries’ ambassadors and ministers of justice and I tell them all about these organizations their countries support, and what they are really doing, which is not always what the donors think they’re paying for, and then I ask them to withdraw their support.

I say to the Irish, for example, imagine how unthinkable it would be if the Israeli government sponsored a campaign in Ireland for or against abortion. Or imagine how unthinkable it would be if the Israeli government campaigned for Catalan independence, or for Scottish independence. For the very same reasons, it’s unthinkable that these European nations continue to give millions of dollars to organizations that cause tremendous damage to Israel. That’s the problem I’m trying to solve via legislation.

But how do you do that without fundamentally corroding the tenets of democracy?

There are two options: taxation, and greater transparency. The latter, I think, is key: Just like in the United States, anyone wishing to accept money from a foreign government should be duly registered and state exactly how much they’ve received, and from whom.

Another subject you’ve been very vocal about is the undocumented foreign workers stealing across the border. Do you consider them an existential threat to Israel?

If they continued to arrive at such high numbers, then sure. Israel is the only Western nation that shares a border with Africa. Over the course of three or four years, we’ve seen an influx of more than 70,000 illegal aliens, most of whom were seeking work. If we didn’t pass a law and erect a fence, it would’ve been never-ending. But now that the law has been through several rounds of legislation, and has gone through the Supreme Court, it is no longer a deterrent. So again, every week about 30 illegal immigrants put up a ladder and hop over the fence. We’ve worked out a solution of repatriating them to another nation, an initiative that was recently met with an appeal and now awaits the court’s decision.

Are there already agreements in place with this designated nation destined to absorb these migrants?

Yes. Israel has reached an agreement with two safe African nations, stating that all African migrants arriving in Israel will be transported within one month to one of these two countries. This solution is designed to reduce the motivation to come to Israel, because arrival would just mean automatically being transported to another country. I think this is a good solution, if we can indeed implement it.

Besides these contentious issues, what are your other legislative priorities?

I spend most of my time working on socioeconomic issues, be it a thorough overhaul I’m leading of the laws concerning bankruptcy or an initiative commemorating the coming shnat shmita, or sabbatical year, and designed to allow people who owe a lot of money but have limited means to enjoy debt relief, if the debtor agrees. We are also heavily promoting making sure victims of sexual assault receive better and more comprehensive care. The ministry of justice is the perfect place for these initiatives. Personally, I’m also pushing for more relaxed regulation. There’s a real sickness in Israel, too much regulation and bureaucracy, and I try to help wherever I can. A major problem is how overly judicial we’ve become as a nation, and I’m trying to help that, too.

When you say overly judicial, do you mean the sort of judicial activism favored by the former chief Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak?

Yes. I say Israel is overly judicial for several reasons. First of all, Aharon Barak’s legacy insisted that everything was subject to legal judgment, so people are rushing to court for every little thing. Second of all, we have an immense amount of lawyers: in Europe, for every 100,00 people you have 150 lawyers; in Japan, the number is 23 lawyers for every 100,000 people; in the United States, I’m not sure, but I think 400 and something, which is still a lot. In Israel, for every 100,000 people, we have 637 lawyers, the highest ratio in the world. That creates a plethora of needless legal proceedings.

You have neither a law degree nor any legal education. How can you run this particular ministry?

It has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main advantage is that I see everything clearly. I’m not biased in any way, nor am I beholden to this milieu, so I’m free to act. The drawbacks? I have gaps in my professional knowledge. But because I’m aware of that, I consult with many experts, and I’m constantly learning.

As a minister of justice and as a politician, you’re heavily criticized by many in Israel. What’s it like to suddenly become this beloved and reviled public figure?

Before I took office, there was a real media storm. Since I took office, thankfully, it’s been more quiet. But I honestly don’t care. I just want to faithfully represent the public that voted for me and diligently work for all the people in Israel. If I can do that, I don’t care what anyone says about me.

The public that voted for you looks nothing like you.

That’s true. I’m a secular woman in a religious party, but I won my party’s primaries, and we’re the second largest party in Israel, after the Likud, so I think that if I won the primaries, it shows that I have a very good connection with the people who vote for me.

Does that mean that Israelis may be moving beyond the divide between religious and secular and are eager now to collaborate on larger common projects?

That was the whole point of joining a religious party. I wanted there to be a bridge between the religious and the secular, and for all of us to work together based on the values of religious Zionism.

Let’s talk more about your party, The Jewish Home. You sustained much criticism these last elections for your uncompromising attitudes towards gay Israelis.

Look, as a religious party, we don’t support civil marriages, let alone same-sex marriages. Still, we advocate for granting same-sex couples full civil rights. Even in the United States, up until a few months ago, same-sex marriages weren’t the law of the land.

You also headed a committee entrusted with finding a solution for conscripting haredi men into the Israel Defense Forces. What’s your vision there?

I’d like to see the haredim become part of the Israeli society. Their number, and their percentage of the population, are both on the rise. The state of Israel will not survive unless they become an integral part of the army and of the workforce. Today only half of all haredi men work, for example, which is not sustainable. I’d like to see more and more of them enter the workforce. This, by the way, used to be the case as late as the late 1970s; it was only after they were collectively released of military duty that the number of haredi men working began to drop. So first let’s get them jobs, and then let’s have them join the army.

Many of us American Jews see the lack of Jewish pluralism in Israel as a very big problem.

Let’s talk about American Jews, then. The American Jewish community is a strategic asset for the state of Israel. American Jews and Israelis support Israel even when times are tough. Jewish assimilation in the U.S. is a strategic catastrophe for the Jewish people and for the state of Israel, and we must fight it together. Initiatives like Taglit or Masa or the Israeli Scouts in America are very important.

But all of these organizations are designed to make Jews care about Israel. Many American Jews don’t.

That true. There are also very liberal American Jews who feel no connection to Israel. And still, it’s very important to maintain their Jewishness, and maintain the continuity of the Jewish people. Naftali Bennett as the minister of the diaspora meets with representatives of all Jewish denominations. It’s tough for Israelis to get that denominational distinction sometimes, because in Israel you’re either secular or you’re religious. In the United States you also have Conservative and Reform Jews, not only Orthodox, and we need to make sure we reach out to all.

Then why not take measures that make these different denominations feel at home in Israel?

You mean like overhauling the conversion process?

For example.

Conversion in Israel is Orthodox. We don’t think you can bend the halakha. We can certainly make the process more pleasant, more accepting, but I don’t see the conversion process in Israel being anything but Orthodox.

And would you ever support civil marriage?

As a religious party, The Jewish Home will not support civil marriages.

Is that a red line for you, politically speaking?

Yes. We will never support it.

Still on the subject of the American Jewish community, how do you feel about organizations like AIPAC and J Street?

I think AIPAC is a strategic asset for Israel, a sort of defensive shield, and I think that American Jews who truly care about Israel should join AIPAC. J Street, on the other hand, cause great damage to the state of Israel, exerting pressure and presenting a distorted image.

Shifting gears, let me ask you about the anti-Israel sentiments on American and European college campuses. How should we go about fighting BDS?

I think BDS is something that could bring the entire American Jewish community together. There’s a minority of ultra-liberal American Jews who, being naïve, buy the BDS movement’s lies. I understand, having spoken to American Jewish students on various campuses, that some of the BDS movement’s leaders are Jews, which I find very difficult and sad. But most American Jews are united against BDS, and understand that the BDS movement’s true aim, according to its own leaders, is to destroy Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The Jewish community should come together and move from defense to offense against BDS. I’d like to see counter-demonstrations on campuses, and a lot more positive events focusing on things like start-up nation. I’d also like us to see refuting the lies of the BDS movement, proactively.

Finally, here’s a question you must hate: If you could choose any political role for yourself, which would it be?

I’m perfectly happy where I am.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.