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Special Interview the Doyen of the Knesset Leaves the House After 33 Years of Service

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Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, the doyen of the Knesset, has left the parliament after 33 years of continuous service. At the age of 75, Warhaftig, a member of the National Religious Party, left the political arena with ill feelings toward none and with a sense of calm acceptance.

From the vantage point of elder statesmen and experienced politicians — and as a noted Talmudic scholar — he stands back and observes the hectic arena of today’s politics. He sounds quite young in his readiness to accept the changes in public norms and ethics. He is not the kind of elderly gentleman who is forever making comparison between the contemporary scene and how it used to be in his own day.

“The standard of the ninth Knesset (1977-81) was really not bad at all,” Warhaftig told this reporter. “Younger people became members and this itself is a positive phenomenon.” For all that, Warhaftig recalls with a certain wistfulness his memories of the founding fathers who brought to the first Knesset their experience in the parliamentary life of several democratic countries in pre-World War II Europe.

A LEADING ACTIVIST IN THE RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT

Warhaftig himself was born in Poland in 1906 and studied law at Warsaw University. During World War II he led a rescue mission that saved the lives of some 5000 Jews from various cities of Poland. All escaped to Shanghai. He still believes that the rescue operation was the most important task he has accomplished in his rich and long public career.

He immigrated to Israel in 1947 and, as a leading activist of the national religious movement, he was included in the “Peoples Assembly,” the first semi-parliamentary organ established in 1948 in order to prepare the first elections in the fledgling Jewish State.

HAD IMPACT ON ELECTORAL SYSTEM

His research on legal systems had a major impact on the formulation of the “Election Law,” by which the elections are still run. “One of the questions that arose in those days,” says the veteran parliamentarian, “was whether the law should lay down restrictions on the eligibility of candidates who have a criminal past.

“I objected to such limitation, arguing that it was entirely unlikely that in Israel there would ever be 10,000 people (in 1948 this was the figure needed to elect one member of the Knesset) who would back a criminal as their representative in the Knesset. I added that should there be support for such a man, then the Israeli people will deserve to have him included in its legislature.”

Since those first election, Warhaftig has served in each of the nine Knessets. During his 33 years of parliamentary service he has been a member in almost all the Knesset committees but his favorite job, he says, was the chairmanship of the Constitution Law and Justice Committee.

MISTAKES OF THE FIRST GENERATION

Asked about the relatively rapid turnover of legislators in the Knesset (as a result of the elections in 1974 and 1977 about 60 percent of Knesseters were replaced by newcomers), Warhaftig says that the present generation is paying the price for the first generation’s mistake. The founding fathers of the State failed to train a second generation to replace them gradually in the national leadership. Consequently, the third generation — the present generation of Israeli politicians — shows such intense eagerness to take its part in power.

“We have the grandfathers’ generations and the grandsons’ generation, while the generation of the sons did not fulfill its due role in politics because their fathers refused to evacuate their seats in the national leaderships,” Warhaftig says.

But though the younger parliamentarians are less politically educated than their predecessors they have their advantages. They are active, ambitious and sensitive to the public needs and wishes, Warhaftig says.

POLITICS SHOULD NOT BE SOLE VOCATION

He warns against the type of Knesset member whose exclusive interest is politics. He recommends to the younger parliamentarians that they keep up an alternative profession and not see politics as their sole vocation. “Politics is a mission not a professional occupation,” he says.

At the age of 75 Warhaftig leaves the Knesset to dedicate the rest of his life exclusively to his researches in law and Talmud. True to his own advice, he has never neglected this academic-spiritual pursuit throughout his long political career, and has found the time to write and publish several scholarly works.

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