The leader of the rising Zehut Party is attracting more than just young potheads to his libertarian platform
BY LAHAV HARKOV
MARCH 15, 2019
It seemed like hardly any politician could go on the radio this week without being asked if he or she has smoked weed. New Right leader Naftali Bennett, National Union head MK Bezalel Smotrich and Blue and White candidate Yoaz Hendel? No. Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay? Yes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would consider legalizing cannabis, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said pot-related offenses should be removed from people’s criminal records. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan touted the law he passed, reducing penalties for first- and second-time cannabis offenders. Meretz put out a “Hey, remember us?” message, pointing out that it has long been for making use of the drug legal.
Meanwhile, religious lawmakers in the Union of Right-Wing Parties and United Torah Judaism warned against the dangers of marijuana “flooding our streets” and “drugging the public.”
Cannabis is an issue that probably deserves its time in the sun. Israel is the country with the highest rate of users of the drug, 27%, out of the 120 surveyed by the UN in 2017. A Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies survey from last year, commissioned by Cannabis magazine, found that if sales were taxed, the state would earn NIS 2.3 billion annually, and would save NIS 190.8 million on police and legal costs.
Despite all this, legalization was not a major issue before now. And while Purim may be around the corner, the jolly holiday is not the occasion for all the drug talk.
The reason cannabis seems to have suddenly become the hottest topic is the Zehut Party passing the electoral threshold in four polls this month.
The party’s leader, former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, won’t commit to supporting Netanyahu or Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for prime minister. Although he has never used cannabis in his life, he said, he will join only a coalition that will legalize the drug. That has shifted the conversation to whether Feiglin could be the potential kingmaker in this election, and if so, who will meet his condition.
Zehut, of course, is not Green Leaf, the pro-cannabis party that ran in every election for the past 20 years, but not this time. It’s not a one-issue party.
Feiglin wrote a 300-page manifesto that is currently a best seller in bookstores. He has a broadly libertarian agenda, seeking to vastly reduce the size of Israel’s government and increase competition in most areas, including allowing greater school choice with a voucher system and having the Chief Rabbinate serve mostly as a licensing agency, rather than providing religious services itself.
From the outset, the Zehut campaign has focused on this aspect of its platform.
“I am emphatically opposed to any coercion, certainly to religious coercion,” one billboard states, and in bold letters it touts the feel-good message: “I want you to be who you are!”
Another says: “A young couple in Israel works the hardest in the West, earns the least in the West and pays the most expensive prices in the West, when Israel is one of the richest countries in the West.”
Many have noted that Feiglin looks remarkably like the famous portrait of Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, with his round glasses and a black turtleneck in black-and-white photos that are used on the billboards and the cover of his book.
BUT FEIGLIN has long been a vocal activist on the religious Right, beginning with leading mass protests against the Oslo Accords, which landed him with a conviction for sedition. And while he has changed in some ways – he used to be outspokenly antigay, for example, but after meeting with LGBT groups said he respects their individual rights – he has not shed the positions that brought him to renown.
Zehut calls to cancel the Oslo Accords, have Israel annex the entire West Bank, and give Palestinians – or “residents of Judea and Samaria who are not Jewish,” as the platform calls them – three choices: emigrate with aid from the state, stay and declare loyalty and become legal residents, or become citizens and serve in the army, “after long and in-depth examination.”
The Zehut platform includes removing the Wakf Islamic religious trust from the Temple Mount and building a synagogue on Judaism’s holiest site, and seeks to move the Knesset and Supreme Court to the Old City.
With so much focus on cannabis, Feiglin said he’s not trying to hide his other views.
“I am the most detailed and open candidate,” he insisted in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post this week. “It’s in all the bookstores, so how can you say I’m hiding something? Unless a miracle happens, I won’t become prime minister, so our agenda is focusing on social issues and not diplomacy. But when I’m asked, I talk about all subjects, like the Temple Mount and security.”
Feiglin said the focus on cannabis “came out that way,” because it is a “colorful” issue, but for him it symbolizes the broader idea of reducing government intervention in people’s lives.
As for his precondition in coalition negotiations, Feiglin said that cannabis is a part of his platform in which he felt immediate change is politically possible.
“If I don’t use this political pressure, it just won’t happen,” he argued, and as for diplomatic issues: “I have lines, I won’t allow dividing Jerusalem to get a portfolio, but I won’t ask for active steps as a condition to enter government.”
Zehut plans to ask for the finance and education ministries in coalition talks.
“Our messages are a lot broader. We have a vision of liberty…. Education is no less important, and the ability of young people to afford a home is no less important,” he said.
Feiglin credited “bringing love and hope into a [political] world that lacks content and is all about raising fears” for pulling in young voters. “I’m not insulting their intelligence.”
TO TRY to crack Zehut’s code, the Post talked to several young voters and found that quite a few are, in fact, supporting Feiglin because they want legal weed. But they had other things to say as well.
David, who asked that a fake name be used, is a father in his mid-thirties working in the tech sector and living in central Israel.
“For me, personally, it’s no secret that I enjoy smoking a little pot here and there, and it would be nice to do it and not be a criminal,” he said. “It should just be another thing available for medical and recreational use, and politicians should get their noses out of it. If they want a tax cut of the profits, they should get that, because they always do. But I don’t want to be told how to live my life.”
David said that he’s found cannabis to be “the best antianxiety medication I can get,” but that he wouldn’t be able to get a prescription for medical marijuana.
He also connected to Feiglin’s libertarian message: “I like personal freedom and getting the government out of my s*** and leaving me alone. I want taxes to be adjusted better.”
In the past, David voted for Kulanu – “That was a mistake; he did nothing” – and for the Likud, and he said he would like Netanyahu to remain prime minister.
Zvi Shapira, 31, a father of three who lives in Samaria and works in the hi-tech sector in Tel Aviv, expressed general cynicism about the political system.
“I don’t really think choosing a specific party will have a big impact on my life…. I don’t think any government on the Left or Right makes a big difference in the diplomatic or economic area. It’s so hard to change anything here…. There isn’t anything dramatic in Likud… and [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz is the same thing. People just don’t want Bibi,” he said.
But legalizing cannabis is something Shapira thought could change his life for the better.
“The taxes won’t be cut in half tomorrow and the traffic jams won’t get better. But if you tell me we’ll legalize light drugs, I’ll be happy,” he said. “I have to basically hide it, because it’s illegal and not accepted, and I don’t like feeling like a criminal. And since it’s illegal, the prices are higher.”
Shapira also isn’t concerned about Feiglin’s diplomatic positions: “He won’t rebuild the Temple, it won’t happen. But cannabis is possible.”
Sarah Jay, 30, lives in Jerusalem and works in nonprofits, and has a Zehut logo on her profile picture on Facebook. She’s not a cannabis user, but she supports legalization.
“It’s part of the broader message that the government is too involved in everyone’s lives. I am a supporter of a smaller government. I think it’s harmless enough that it’s not worth the government prosecuting people for it,” she said.
And Jay saw the focus on cannabis as a net positive because it piques voters’ interest in the party.
She also said she’s completely comfortable with Feiglin’s diplomatic views, saying that “the two-state solution is dead,” and wouldn’t vote for a party that supports one. Still, she said, those stances probably won’t be relevant in the near future.
Jay’s main reason for supporting Zehut is its economic platform: “I feel there is no other party with a vision to improve the Israeli economy, which is stagnant. The cost of living is so high, the workweek is so long and salaries are so low. They [Zehut] are the only ones with libertarian free-market ideas that can help us break the protectionist system in place.”