What if Israel had a coalition government that was not beholden to the fervently Orthodox parties’ hold on matters of marriage, divorce, conversion, and army exemptions for yeshiva students?
That possibility is beginning to appear likely, generating enthusiasm among the leaders of the liberal streams as well as the Modern Orthodox.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying these last few weeks since the national election to form a coalition that would include the haredi (or, ultra-Orthodox) parties that have supported him in the past in return for funding for their schools and projects, and control of the Interior Ministry, which deals with issues of religious law in citizens’ personal lives.
But the two surprise successes of the election, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, have held firm to their post-election alliance, saying they would not join a government with the haredi parties. And it appears Netanyahu has little choice but to go along.
It would be the first government since 2003 formed without the haredi parties.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that promotes improved relations between religious and secular Jews in Israel, said Tuesday that he has met with many Knesset members and came away “cautiously optimistic.
“There is a lot of opportunity to move items on my group’s agenda forward,” he said. Shas, a haredi party, currently controls Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration policy and rules on the contentious “Who is a Jew” issue.
In particular, he said, the new coalition might “widen the doors of conversion, particularly for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who face a high threshold to prove they are Jewish. We suggested in one of our meetings today that the new government enable couples to be recognized as Jews rather than being their adversary.”
Ammiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi and spiritual leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, said bluntly: “Anything that distances haredi [fervently Orthodox] leaders from defining the religious character of the State of Israel is a good thing because they are non-democratic in character — and Israel is democratic — and they are non-pluralistic in a pluralistic Jewish world.”
Rabbi Hirsch added: “It is absurd that a non-Zionist force [the fervently Orthodox haredi] has become so influential in governments of the Zionist state.”
But Rabbi Farber cautioned that it is not a done deal until it is finalized.
“In Israel, politics is the politics of surprise,” he explained. “You never really know how it will shake out — even after an agreement has been signed.”
Netanyahu has reportedly told Shas that he is unable to include it in his new government because Lapid and Bennett, whose parties account for 31 seats together, are opposed. Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisroel Beiteinu Party also has 31 seats. Shas which has vowed to be a vocal opposition party, has 11 seats and the other fervently Orthodox Party, United Torah Judaism, has seven.
Lapid told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during their visit to Israel last month that he would do all “in my power to ensure the equality between all movements of Judaism in the State of Israel — Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. In conversions, in budgets, in the eyes of the law, no one can claim ownership of the Jewish God.”
Lapid said he plans to promote civil marriage in Israel — currently only Orthodox marriages are recognized — and any marriage conducted abroad.
Lapid decried as “an insult” the “complete dominance of Orthodox rabbis” over marriages.
Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, said Tuesday that he too is “cautiously optimistic” that significant civil changes in Israel may be on the horizon.
“Israel has an opportunity — an historic opportunity — to launch a civil agenda that has been hijacked for years by the ultra-Orthodox parties that extracted a price for their swing vote,” he said.
The opportunity for change came about, Rabbi Regev said, because when Israelis went to the polls Jan. 22 their main concern was not the existential threat from Iran that Netanyahu warned of or the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace that former opposition leader Tzipi Livni stressed. Rather, he said, it was to agree with Lapid and Bennett about the need to end religious deferments for tens of thousands of haredi yeshiva students who don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces and must now “share the burden” of military service.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that if the expected changes occur it would be a “welcome development.
“I don’t think it marginalizes the role of religion, per se, in the life of Israelis,” he said. “But it marginalizes the coercive impact of religion on Israelis by religious forces who would seek to impose a particular approach on Israelis who have no interest in it. To me, it represents a giant step forward in bringing Israel — spiritually speaking — into the 21st century. And it opens the door for a variety of expressions of Judaism to flower within Israel, with an equal opportunity to funding and government access and all that they need to give them a chance to flourish.”
American Jews, too, would favor “a government that moves in the direction of greater religious pluralism,” according to Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.
“Weakening the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in the area of personal status and not having the Interior Ministry in the hands of ultra-Orthodox parties is something American Jewry would applaud,” he said. “The one exception is that within the Orthodox camp the idea of greater religious pluralism causes some concern.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., and president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said that although conversions by RCA rabbis have been questioned in recent years by the Chief Rabbinate and fervently Orthodox parties, through “personal contacts … we have been able to overcome the differences.
“We will welcome the opportunity to work with whomever is chosen as chief rabbi in the future and look forward to any changes that might bring about even greater understanding between our communities,” he said.
Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Dan Meridor told a conference call arranged by the Israel Policy Forum Tuesday that “the ultra-Orthodox parties may very well be outside the government.” He said there has been a movement in Israel for some time calling for changes in government funding of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements in Israel “relative to their numbers.”
“I wish it would happen,” he said.
Similarly, he said he favored a change when it comes to civil marriages in Israel.
“It is clear to me we need to change the system by which we live,” he said. “We marry by religion only. That belongs to the past. We can’t do that anymore, especially with one million Jews coming in [from the former Soviet Union], some with no Jewish mother. They feel and act Jewish but they can’t marry because of the Chief Rabbinate. … Will the new coalition go for civil marriage? I can’t give a good answer.”
Lapid announced this week that he is supporting the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav to be Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi when the selection is made in June. Rabbi Stav, an Orthodox moderate whose children served in the Israel Defense Forces, is running an active campaign to return the Chief Rabbinate to religious Zionist hands after years of haredi Orthodox control.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote a blog for the Jerusalem Post this week in which he fantasized about religious life in Israel in the year 2029 after the “religious revolution of 2013 … when religious turmoil was at its height.” Although not a “religious utopia,” he said Israel in 2029 “was a country in which an end to Orthodox hegemony had produced a revived Orthodoxy, an active and growing progressive Judaism…”