"The Jewish identity is in danger and you are the gatekeepers," political newcomer Yair Lapid told audience members Tuesday at the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement in Atlanta. "Judaism shouldn't be the jailhouse of ideas but a liberator of ideas; not a disintegrator of people but what brings people together," he said.
Speaking on the same day that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz stunned Israelis with the surprise announcement that they had formed a unity government, Lapid had a hard time justifying his presence at the assembly, as audiences turned the discussion onto politics.
Lapid admitted it was "bad timing" and explained that while "people in America often feel neglected, the right people in Israel are listening to you."
When asked what he plans on doing now that the early elections have been called off, Lapid said, "To work hard. I see a huge opportunity. This creates a big vacancy for us. We are going to unite all sane forces. Kadima went back to what it always has been: part of the Likud. I congratulate them on this reunification."
Lapid said the general elections now due to take place in 2013 will set the Israeli government straight. "People in Israel are sick and tired of the old politics. We are going to be practical in voting. Things always change in the political arena... One of the hardest things is to create hope."
The former TV host and newly minted politician was greeted with applause when he presented some aspects of his political agenda to the Jewish American crowd.
He said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, has to "tolerate the unbearable fact that the state of Israel doesn't recognize her as a rabbi while her son is serving as an intelligence officer."
Speaking of a bill introduced by MK David Rotem, which, for the first time in Israeli law would give the Chief Rabbinate authority over Jewish conversion, Lapid insisted he would do anything in his power to ensure it disappears.
"Israel can't be the only country in the Western world not to have freedom of religion," he said. "I will support civilian marriages and do everything in my power to ensure equality to all denominations of Judaism. No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God."
Commenting on the controversial Tal law, Lapid insisted that all Israelis must serve. "Either in the army or civil service of some sort. The Tal law said the following: every religious youngster who does not go to the army must be locked in yeshivot. We want to empty them of all these people who are hiding there in order to not serve."
The Yesh Atid (There is a Future) head also told the Jewish-American audience of his late father, Yosef (Tomy) Lapid's childhood during the Holocaust, stressing that the split between Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora "is a historical accident". "I could be you and you could be me, because somewhere down the genealogical line of every person in this room there is a person standing on a pier trying to figure which way to go. If someone raises their hand on a Jew in Atlanta - it happens to me," he said, adding that the same applies "if someone desecrates gravestones in Ukraine."
Lapid said that in his opinion, "the wagon of Zionism is not empty; it is full with all that is good in Jewish spirit," and that despite the fact he is "no leftist" and "Palestinians made terrible mistakes during process," Israel and the Palestinians need to come back to the table. "But we are not anywhere near the table," he insisted.