Silver Spring-raised Rabbi Dov Lipman’s political career began one morning in Beit Shemesh, the Israeli city he and his family moved to in 2004. His noticed a sign in the community that offended him.
“It’s forbidden for women to walk on the street in clothing deemed immodest,” it read.
He wasn’t able to tear the sign down, so he bought spray paint to cover it up.
This was his “first act in Israel as vigilante in nature,” Lipman told a Washington audience on Sunday. He spray-painted over the last two words of the sign so it read: “It’s forbidden for women to walk on the street in clothing.”
“An amazing thing happened,” Lipman said. “The signs never came back again. And for me, it was such an empowering moment. The fact that I, who had no political connections and no one to turn to politically, I was able to push back … against extremism. Over time, I realized this [behavior] was happening because of isolationism of the ultra-Orthodox community. It was fostering extremism.”
Lipman is himself an ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jew. But he found his way into the candidate list of the largely secular Yesh Atid political party in the 2013 Knesset elections. The party did better than expected and Lipman, to his surprise, became a legislator. Two years later, the party lost support in a new election, and Lipman was out of the Knesset.
Lipman, 44, came to Kesher Israel Congregation to speak about his new book, An American MK, in which he writes about his 25 months in the Knesset. The event was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Lipman said he is grateful for what Israel provides newcomers like him and his wife, Dena. “It really was remarkable what was offered to us with a silver platter by the people who built this country with blood, sweat and tears. Here’s education for your children, transportation, health, a functioning country everywhere,” he said.
Lipman said during his time in the Knesset, he clashed with the ultra-Orthodox, especially on Yesh Atid’s effort to pass a law to obligate haredim to serve in the army. Israel, he said, has been “hijacked somewhat by the ultra-Orthodox community.”
Lipman, who now is director of public diplomacy at the World Zionist Organization’s Department of Zionist Operations, continues his involvement with Yesh Atid. He told his audience that party leader Yair Lapid has his eye on the prime minister’s office.
(Lapid was in Washington as well. On Monday he spoke at the ADL National Leadership Summit.)
Lipman said he met Lapid in 2012 in Beit Shemesh. Lapid’s willingness to compromise and reach out to religious Jews appealed to him. Lipman said they had a genuine “heart to heart,” and talked about their different backgrounds and of their shared values.
“Dov, we come from different planets,” Lipman said Lapid told him. “You’re Orthodox from Silver Spring, Maryland. I’m from an aristocratic family in Tel Aviv. But we agree about 80 percent of the issues. Let’s do something courageous. Let’s work together.”
Serving in the Knesset required Lipman to renounce his American citizenship, an act he called “traumatic.”
“I got through it,” he said. “I will tell you that it is was pretty special that 2,000 years ago, my ancestors lived in this land, and now we’ve come full circle, and now I was reminded I’m Israeli.”
Lipman’s first task in the Knesset was to begin channeling more haredim into the workplace. He said that he wanted to reassure the community that one can be pious as well as a working member of society. “It’s not a contradiction.” Lipman said.
He said that as a result of his party’s legislation, more than 3,500 haredim have gotten training for employment.
Israel remains isolated in the world, he said, the result of inadequate public diplomacy.
“We need to find the way to get the facts out there,” he said. “We are losing our students” on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions issue “because the other side — the Palestinian camp —is talking about justice, human rights. There’s no other story. We’re telling our Israeli pride story — returning to our homeland, which is great, but we have to do a much better job on the educational level. We need to be talking about human rights on our side.”