Among New Knesset Faces, Some Staunch Advocates of Jewish Pluralism
Non-Orthodox movements see potential allies in several first-time Likud lawmakers.
By Judy Maltz
Although the exact composition of Israel’s next government has yet to be finalized, one thing is clear. After sitting on the political sidelines for two years, the ultra-Orthodox parties will be wielding their influence once again.
Both Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two Haredi parties that sat in opposition in the previous Knesset, are well on their way to joining the new coalition, while the downsized Yesh Atid, which rose to power in the 2013 election on promises of ending preferential treatment for the ultra-Orthodox, appears destined for the opposition.
So how big a blow are the results of last week’s election for those who support progressive Judaism and reject the preferential status of Orthodoxy in Israel? Perhaps not as massive as many would think, say activists promoting religious pluralism in Israel.
True, the ultra-Orthodox parties are likely to lay claim to key portfolios in the new government, namely the Interior Ministry and the powerful Knesset Finance Committee. In addition, according to a report published this week by Hiddush, a nonprofit group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to demand 2.5 billion shekels ($637 million) in direct budgetary outlays in exchange for their participation in the coalition.
And with Yesh Atid neutralized, there will be no forces in government to stand in their way. But while the new coalition will clearly have a more Orthodox bent, the same is not true of the incoming Knesset. In fact, quite the contrary.
“At the end of the day, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox components of the Knesset have shrunken dramatically,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, who lost his past two attempts to earn a Knesset seat with the Labor Party. “Shas went down from 11 to seven seats, United Torah Judaism lost a seat, and [Naftali] Bennett’s party [Habayit Hayehudi] lost four seats. All together, that’s nine seats fewer.”
While Yesh Atid also lost a big chunk of seats, the new centrist party Kulanu, which is likely to join the coalition, could take its place as a counterbalance to the Orthodox lobby, says Kariv. “There are quite a few members of Kulanu who support Jewish pluralism,” he notes.
Jewish Pluralism Watch, a watchdog organization founded by the Conservative-Masorti movement in the country, has for the past two years been monitoring the positions taken by Israeli lawmakers on matters of religion and state.
Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the movement in Israel, is even mildly optimistic about the new government and Knesset, pointing out that several new lawmakers from parties sure to join the coalition are known to identify with causes held dear by the non-Orthodox movements.
Likud’s Yoav Kisch, he notes, was a leader of a grassroots military reservist movement determined to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and workforce. “He’s a liberal Likudnik of the old breed,” says Hess. “We’ve worked with him closely, and he’s definitely committed to a liberal agenda.”
Nava Boker, another Likud newbie, stills bears the scars of her dealings with the Chief Rabbinate while trying to obtain a divorce from her first husband, Hess adds. “This is something she speaks about publicly, and it has made her a very strong advocate of freedom of choice,” he says.
Two other new Knesset members from Kulanu have also been vocal supporters of progressive Judaism. One is American-born Michael Oren, the former ambassador to the United States, whose son was married in Israel by a Conservative rabbi following a civil ceremony in Washington D.C.
The other is Rachel Azaria, the former Jerusalem deputy mayor who previously headed Mavoi Satum, an organization that advocates on behalf of women struggling to obtain a get or divorce from the religious authorities. A third member of Kulanu believed to be sympathetic to progressive Judaism is Roy Folkman, a founder of New Spirit, a large student organization in Jerusalem engaged in community building.
Although Zionist Union will most probably sit in the opposition, Hess notes that two new members of the slate are strong advocates of progressive Judaism. One is Manuel Trajtenberg, an economics professor who belongs to Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, the flagship congregation of the Reform movement in Israel. The other is Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-speaking journalist who had her own bitter experience with the religious authorities when she was refused a divorce for two years and has since vowed never to step foot in the Rabbinate’s offices.
Another small consolation for progressive-minded Jews, says Hess, is that Meretz ultimately won enough support to make it into the Knesset. “Thank God for that,” he says, “since they’ve always been there for us.”
Conversion and civil marriage
Also sweetening the blow for religious-reform advocates is that two members of religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi hostile to non-Orthodox movements will not be returning to the Knesset. These are Hebron settler Orit Strock and Yoni Chetboun, who defected to the even further right-wing Yahad party, which failed to win the necessary 3.25 percent of the vote to make it into parliament.
“We can definitely say that this is good for the Jews because these are people who would not speak to us and were disgusted by the non-Orthodox movements,” says Hess.
On the other hand, he notes, four members of the past Knesset, all known to be staunch advocates of Jewish pluralism, did not make the cut. They are Ruth Calderon and Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid, Elazar Stern of Hatnuah and Shuli Moalem of Habayit Hayehudi.
Two key issues involving religion and state that engaged the previous government and Knesset were conversion reform and civil marriage. In November, the cabinet approved a modified version of the controversial conversion reform bill, which would allow municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts. This would have eased the process for tens of thousands of Israelis born of mixed marriages who don’t qualify as Jews according to Jewish law.
Kariv of the Reform movement is not only convinced that the conversion reform will be buried by the new government and Knesset, he predicts the same for any proposals meant to liberalize marriage laws. “What was is what will be,” he says. “There will definitely be no breakthroughs.”
And so what good is there in having a more progressive Knesset? “It will prevent things from getting worse,” responds Kariv, “and that’s also important.”
Ayellet Cohen-Wieder, a board member at Kolech, an organization of Orthodox Israeli feminists, is less optimistic. The issue is not whether the next government sways to the right or left, but rather its relations with the ultra-Orthodox parties, she says.
“Had Zionist Union been the one to form the government, there wouldn’t be any progress either because they would have had to bring the Haredim into the coalition as well,” she says. “The only way to make progress on matters of religion and state in this country is through a national unity government made up of the two big parties and without the ultra-Orthodox.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of Itim, an organization that helps people having problems with the religious establishment, is also a bit glum. “I think there was more hope in the last government for religious reform,” he says. “No one then was talking about the status quo as something holy.”
Considering the expected makeup of the next government, he predicts that organizations like his will shift their lobbying efforts from the Knesset to the Supreme Court. “The one thing I can say I’m optimistic about right now is that I’ll still be in business in four years,” he says.