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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Israeli Elections, Religion, State and American Jewry

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The last few years have been turbulent in Israeli-American Jewry relations. The most recent escalation was over women’s and egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, but this was not an isolated issue.

Since the 1970s, every decade has seen a conflagration over “Who is a Jew?” prompted by ultra-Orthodox parties’ attempts to exclude from recognition under Israeli law most American “Jews by choice” and the rabbis who convert them. One of the reasons for the short-lived 21st Knesset was the demand made — once again — by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to pass a law to preempt an anticipated Supreme Court ruling in favor of non-Orthodox converts. This time, the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate also aimed to exclude Modern Orthodox converts.

Amazingly, all of this may end as Israelis goes back to the polls on Sept. 17. Israel has never experienced a similar opportunity to end the decades-old fundamentalist Orthodox hold over its religious Jewish life.

The short explanation goes back to the failed coalition negotiations following the April elections. Israel’s Knesset has 120 members, and its government has relied on coalition-building. Historically, coalitions have included religious parties as “kingmakers,” granting their support in the early decades to the Labor party and in recent decades to Likud. The Orthodox parties always exact a price for their support, and it gets met, based on a myth that one cannot form a government without them. The perception exists that paying them off is a good deal, for they make few claims regarding security and economic policy.

Israelis repeatedly have expressed their aspirations to realize the principles stated in the country’s Declaration of Independence, which states the country will “uphold full social and political equality regardless of religion, race, or gender,” and that it “will ensure freedom of religion and conscience.” Their aspirations, however, have been ignored by the country’s powers that be — from right, left and center as each, in turn, has sought the ultra-Orthodox parties’ support.

Israel has never experienced a similar opportunity to end the decades-old fundamentalist Orthodox hold over its religious Jewish life.

Interestingly, rare exceptions did occur when the government came under pressure to change the “Who is a Jew?” laws to exclude non-Orthodox conversions; they found themselves under massive pressure from American Jewry. On those occasions, Israel’s government backed off, realizing Israel’s strategic interests and the ongoing support of American Jewry were at stake.

So what happened this time? The leading political contenders in the April elections no longer were right versus left, because the left has lost much of its popular appeal. Surveys demonstrate that only 15% of Israeli Jews identify as left of center and 63% identify themselves as right of center. Thus, the elections mostly pitted right versus center.

Three former chiefs of staff — one of whom also served as minister of defense — lead the major centrist party, Blue and White. Its leadership includes a significant number of leaders from the right. Blue and White proved a game-changer, and the elections resulted in identical showings for Likud and Blue and White (35 Knesset seats each). Likud and its natural supporters only had 60 Knesset seats, one short of a majority, because of the surprise turnabout by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman insisted the Military Draft Bill, geared to enlist more ultra-Orthodox men, be adopted as law. The ultra-Orthodox party leadership rejected this, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to go again to elections rather than allow the president to appoint another candidate to form a coalition.

Since then, as efforts to depict Blue and White as the “weak left” are failing, Lieberman’s party has dramatically changed course, focusing almost solely on opposition to theocracy, vowing the only coalition it will support is a broad, civil union between Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beiteinu. This focus on religious freedom has resulted in a projected doubling of its mandates in the coming election. More recently, Blue and White, having previously expressed a desire to partner with the ultra-Orthodox parties, declared it will not enter into a coalition with them and “not give in to extortionists.”

These dramatic changes reflect Hiddush’s public opinion polling since January, which consistently shows the majority desires a coalition government that does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties. 

Lieberman has translated this into a renewed campaign strategy, which has paid off in a big way. Blue and White’s voters also have indicated their desire that their party enter into a civil coalition rather than ally with the ultra-Orthodox parties. They also expressed a desire for their party to commit to religious freedom. At long last, the party heeded them and most undecided voters who have indicated a commitment to religious freedom may sway their votes.

Over the course of the last couple years, some key American Jewish leaders have expressed their strong feelings regarding the rift between Israel and American Jewry. The leadership of the Jewish Agency canceled a festive dinner with Netanyahu, protesting a Cabinet decision to suspend the Kotel agreement. This was followed by public, forceful pronouncements by Ronald Lauder in a New York Times op-ed and Charles Bronfman in an article in the Forward. They represented the discontent with Israel’s religion and state policies, which cuts across political and religious lines.

Israel’s response, as the prime minister conveyed, has been scornful. While he has pledged to ensure “every Jew, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, feels at home in Israel,” his explanation for the rift is that it stems solely from American Jewry’s “drifting away from Judaism.” Israel’s former minister of Diaspora affairs Naftali Bennet similarly attributed the problem to American Jewish assimilation, and Israel’s consul general in New York Dani Dayan,  rebuked American Jewry, saying it must respect Israeli democracy. Others in the Cabinet have been explicitly offensive to American Jews in general and to Reform and Conservative Judaism in particular.

The challenge of religious freedom and equality features centrally in the coming elections, with political projections indicating the long-established coalition formula of surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demands may come to an end. If this occurs, it would relieve Israel from the many deep layers of religious coercion, anti-pluralistic policies, religiously motivated gender discrimination, constant challenges to conversion and the right to family, and more. It also would be a step in healing the bonds with American Jewry, which slowly have been eroding to the point of endangering both Jewish unity and Israel’s core strategic interests. These aspirations are reflected in the trans-denominational and transpolitical endorsements across Israel and the U.S. of the “Vision Statement: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” which Hiddush’s Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality widely shares. Clearly, both Jewish communities are ready for the dawning of a new era. 

Will Netanyahu’s last-minute dramatic announcement about partial annexation if he is appointed prime minister change the scenario described here? It’s too early to say but we doubt it.


Stanley P. Gold is chair and Rabbi Uri Regev is president of an Israel-Diaspora partnership: Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel. Gold reported from Los Angeles and Regev from Jerusalem. 

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