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Q&A

The Hasidic Knesset member from Brooklyn speaking out against U.S. antisemitism

Moshe Roth: ‘We assumed that whoever is educated has moral clarity. To us, moral clarity and right and wrong are built in our education…so we didn’t see it coming’

Knesset Spokesperson’s Office

MK Moshe Roth

In late December, a Knesset member from the Ashkenazi-Haredi United Torah Judaism bloc, approached the podium in his usual Hasidic garb, a long black coat and a black kippah, and asked for permission to address the parliament “in a foreign language” — something usually reserved for when foreign leaders address the legislature. 

MK Moshe Roth proceeded to address “my fellow Jews” in English inflected with the part-New York, part-Yiddish accent that would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Roth grew up.

“On the other end of the world, there is another war raging, an onslaught of blind hatred…this hatred known as antisemitism is shamefully running rampant in the civilized streets of other countries…[and] voiced in universities which used to be prestigious. 

“We know you carry the burden of this terrible phenomenon,” Roth added. “I call upon you from our eternal holy city of Jerusalem: Stand strong…Now is the time to stand together and look out for each other.”

Roth, a Bnei Brak resident who marks a year in the Knesset this month, spoke with Jewish Insider last week fresh off of another speech, this time in Hebrew. He criticized the government, despite being a member of the ruling coalition, because the law does not grant families of injured soldiers any benefits as long as those soldiers are hospitalized, even if the hospital stays are lengthy and require relatives to miss many days of work.The MK called the situation “shameful” from the plenum.

Diaspora Jews, IDF soldiers – these are not the typical constituencies of a lawmaker who was the first ever to be appointed to the UTJ list to represent Sanz Hasids.

Yet Roth, who speaks with an easy, warm smile, said his mission is to serve “klal Yisrael,” the entire Jewish people, a value he learned from his father, Rabbi Chaim Alter Roth, who was an important figure in Agudath Israel of America.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

JI: What inspired you to get into politics?

MR: I don’t like to use the word politics. That’s why I got into askanut [community service]. I have taken part in public work as a volunteer for many years; I was on the board of Laniado Hospital in Netanya for 20 years for the same reason. For as long as I can remember, I was busy with volunteer work. Part of my reason for becoming a lawyer was to utilize that to help the public.

My upbringing was in an environment of caring for klal Yisrael. My father came out of Auschwitz at the age of 16 with the number 8524 tattooed on his arm. That environment affected my outlook and put everything in a certain perspective. I was raised by my parents with the ideal that caring about Israel and the Jewish people is the most important thing.

When I came to Israel on my own as an immigrant at age 20, I felt part of the big picture. To me, UTJ is a venue for the whole Jewish nation. Although I am focused on the needs of the Orthodox community and its education, when we talk about the wide scope of things, I definitely think about what is important for the Jewish nation.

JI: Why did you make the unusual decision to give your speech about antisemitism in the plenum in English?

MR: Antisemitism is an international issue. The ones who are getting the brunt of it and carrying that burden are not in Israel. We in Israel have a different kind of war. Antisemitism is the war of the Jews living in the free world, of students on campuses and people at work. I felt it was important to talk to them. Therefore, I addressed my words to my fellow Jews. I think it is important for there to be continuous communication between Israeli political leaders and the Diaspora.

Modern antisemitism is cloaked by anti-Zionism. When somebody is an anti-Zionist, it’s because he’s an antisemite…The worst antisemitism is what’s happening on campuses…It’s also the antisemitism that caught us by surprise. The reason that we, the Jewish people, were so naive about it is that it’s hard to fathom how educated people can become antisemitic. We assumed that whoever is educated has moral clarity. To us, moral clarity and right and wrong are built in our education…so we didn’t see it coming

JI: What do you think is Israel’s role in combating antisemitism?

MR: This is one thing Israel can’t do much about, contrary to what people may think. Any action Israel will take will be condemned automatically….The only thing Israel can do, and for this we need the Jewish community and influential individuals in the world, is bring to light the source of the antisemitism in universities, such as money from Qatar and other sources that have antisemitic agendas. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We should use our influence in the world to try to counteract that kind of antisemitism and to be a force against it.

The war against antisemitism should be part of a global effort with good people. We need good people to stand with us. 

JI: Was your speech part of that effort?

MR: You know, my mother tongue is Yiddish. Coming from Brooklyn, English wouldn’t have helped me with anything. But at a certain point, I put my mind to learning.

Right now, the most important thing that I can be a part of and put my skills to use is being part of hasbara [literally “explaining” – public relations].

There’s no English word for hasbara, because the only one asked to explain itself is Israel. I am trying my best at this.

JI: What are you doing for Israel’s public relations?

MR: I meet with delegations from foreign parliaments visiting the Knesset, and when they hear me speak, it adds a traditional, Jewish worldwide effect. In a certain sense, I have many generations speaking through me. I also think that looking religious only adds to the seriousness of what I have to say.

I do interviews with international media, not only in the West. I had an interesting one with Indian media. Since they also have a lot of issues with radical Islam, they loved to hear somebody speak about that. It felt close to home for them. That was an interesting experience, to see all of us in the free world have the same threat in common.

We have a group of MKs who speak foreign languages and we work together. I am also a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy. Today, for example, we had an important session on UNRWA [the UN agency for Palestinian refugees]. Every few days we have meetings that have to do with foreign policy. I take points from them and try to utilize them in whatever interviews I give.

All in all, it’s a very lopsided, odd battle because for every interview and piece of media in which we are successful in getting our message on the world stage, there are hundreds from the other side.

JI: There are a lot of Israelis who are not part of the government or the army trying to help Israel’s public messaging via social media and other channels. Is the Haredi community also trying to get involved in this way?

MR: The general Haredi people, as communities and organizations, have the tendency to be first responders in any crisis and to volunteer to help with any need that may arise. ZAKA, Hatzalah, supplying food, healthcare and equipment — that would be their first instinct and they do it in abundance.

There are more than 200,000 volunteers in the Haredi community. That is eight times as much as any other community in Israel…ZAKA is 90% Haredi. Nobody else does what they do. Either they do it or it doesn’t happen…

There is also more sophisticated help, like helping the system run better. We have professionals for that, people who have the know-how. Haredim have a lot of volunteers in every system, but you don’t see them, because it’s happening behind the scenes. Many Haredi people are helping with hasbara, whether it’s publishing articles, cartoons or video clips. You see their work everywhere.

Haredi people, in general, are sensitive to what’s going on in Israel. Little children start school every morning by saying psalms and praying for fellow Jews in distress.

JI: There was a lot of buzz in the media about thousands of Haredim volunteering to join the IDF when this war began. Do you think this is a lasting trend?

MR: It’s true, but this doesn’t change the general idea that yeshiva students need an exemption from the draft, because 100% of those who volunteered in the wake of the crisis were not yeshiva students. No one is exempt just because he’s Haredi; only yeshiva students are, whether they are teenagers or they are married and have children and learning in the kollel. The only difference is that now they are learning for the spiritual sake of the success of the army. There’s no practical change in that arrangement.

What is different is for the Haredim who are in a position to volunteer. In the regular situation, it’s very bureaucratic and you can’t just join the IDF when you want. After Oct. 7, the IDF was more flexible, so many Haredim were able to join immediately. 

In addition, new venues opened up to be part of the effort. If they remain open in the long term, more Haredim will be able to be part of the system…in a situation where a father of two children can serve, but not too far from home or something like that.

Nothing will change with regard to yeshiva students. It hasn’t changed, and it won’t change. So it’s true, thousands of Haredim are enlisting, but there is no change in the major idea of the past 75 years that [Haredi] yeshiva students don’t join the army.

JI: You say it won’t change, but this has been a big political issue for decades. It brought down governments.

MR: The reason why it won’t change is not only because the Haredim don’t want it to change – it’s because nobody wants it to change. It’s a political sport. Everyone loves to talk about it, to negotiate about it. It’s good for the polls when an election comes around. It’s a wonderful item to highlight that covers up for so many mistakes and negatives. All a politician has to do is talk about the importance of the draft, the army, the mothers of the soldiers – as if all soldiers are on the front.

The army doesn’t need more manpower. There is no actual need. If there was a need, there wouldn’t be any Army Radio and thousands of boys and girls walking the halls of the Kirya [Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv]. But no politicians talk about the mothers of the soldiers [serving] in Army Radio. 

JI: The High Court of Justice struck down the law regarding Haredi enlistment in 2017 on grounds of inequality and has continued to demand the government come up with a new solution. The Knesset was supposed to work on a bill the week the war started. You don’t think the government will have to deal with this issue eventually?

MR: There won’t be a law. There’s no law that could address the social issue. It’s a contradiction. A social issue is based on an arrangement, a legal issue is black and white. This is a social issue, not a defense issue because the IDF doesn’t need more manpower…To solve a social issue you need compromise…but the politicians are not really interested in solving it. All they want is to raise the issue again for political benefit.

There is a real virtue to this compromise. We, the Jewish people, are three things: We are a nation with a state, we are a race and we are a religion. These three pillars work together. We need scholars. To us, Torah education is a necessity, a basic part of our being….We are the people of the book. That is a huge responsibility, to make sure the Torah is not forgotten. ..Therefore, although I am not a yeshiva student, a scholar, I want and need the Jewish nation to have scholars – and the more the better. The minimum would be that a substantial part of the Jewish people should only be learning Torah. For that to happen, we need yeshivas…

Today, we have about 1-1.2% of the population in yeshiva, but it would be better if we had more. In the time of Joshua, there were 1,000 learners for every 1,000 soldiers – that was the formula.

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