Reform and Conservative Jews.
Reform and Conservative Jews. Photo by Illustration by Ruth Gvili
Text size

For the first time since they began operating in Israel, representatives of non-Orthodox Jewish movements and secular Jewish learning programs are actively seeking political power. They are trying to enroll voters in various political parties, and some are even considering running for places on party slates. Their goal is to serve as a counterweight to the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, who have for years forged close alliances with whichever major party is in power.

So far, no prominent representative of these groups has officially thrown his hat in the ring. But among those seriously considering it are Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform Movement's Israeli branch and a member of the Labor Party, and Dr. Ruth Calderon, founder of the Alma college for Hebrew culture and a founding member of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party.

Kariv will be one of the speakers at a conference in Jerusalem Tuesday on the question of whether and how the "Jewish renaissance movements," as they call themselves, should get involved in politics. The conference is being organized by Panim, a federation of Jewish renaissance movements that spans the spectrum from liberal Orthodox organizations such as Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah to secular groups like the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

Kariv said he hasn't yet decided whether to run in the Labor primary this time around, but "it definitely seems that the next stage of my life will be an attempt to enter the Knesset. I think we need politics, and that politics isn't something contemptible, and I believe that Reform and Conservative rabbis and representatives of the Jewish renaissance movements need to sit in the Knesset.

Attorney Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement (the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism), said he has no intention of running for election, though he is a member of Kadima. But he has been trying hard to persuade other members of the "pluralism lobby," as he calls the Jewish renaissance movements, to join parties and run for places on their Knesset slates.

Hess has given presentations on this issue in various places, including a recent conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His goal is to urge new party members and future Knesset candidates to push a political agenda aimed at reducing the power of the religious establishment and dismantling the Haredi "society of learners," in which most Haredi men neither work nor serve in the army, but instead study Torah full-time and rely on government assistance to support their families.

Specifically, he said, it is vital to curb the power of the rabbinic courts, institute civil marriage, force Haredim to do either military or civilian national service, reform child allowance payments, end the institutional discrimination against non-Orthodox Jewish movements and make it much easier for people to convert to Judaism.

Another goal is to secure government funding for the dozens of Jewish renaissance organizations that currently receive no state support. Ironically, however, the fact that these groups depend on donations from abroad, and thus have close connections with overseas donors, could give their representatives a fund-raising edge should they seek to run in party primaries.

Another speaker at the Hartman Institute conference was Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria of the Yerushalmim faction. Azaria is a liberal Orthodox Jew who formerly headed Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps women unable to obtain a religious divorce. She currently has no plans to enter national politics, but believes the need to do so is gaining increasing acceptance among the Jewish renaissance movements.

"When I moved from the Jewish renaissance organizations into the political system, it was out of an understanding that we're all writing position papers, demonstrating, speaking in the media and trying to change the situation, but there is someone in the decision-making positions, and it isn't us," she said. "In Jerusalem specifically, I saw that the city was becoming more Haredi and understood that the way to influence the situation was from within the system. Now that I've done it, I can say with certainty that the ability to influence issues of religion and state in general, and Jewish renaissance in particular, from within the political system is astounding."

Inter alia, she cited successes in getting cultural institutions in the capital opened on Shabbat, as well as joint activities between the municipality and the Jewish renaissance organizations. "After two years in politics, I felt that I'd achieved more results than in 10 years working for organizations," she concluded.

Hess agreed. "The pluralist camp in Israel is much bigger than people tend to think. Survey after survey proves that more than half a million Jews in Israel identify with the two non-Orthodox movements," and that doesn't even count all the secular organizations involved in Jewish renaissance, he said.

This camp can't set up its own party, he noted, because its members' views on political and economic issues span the spectrum. But that doesn't mean they cannot have a political impact.

"In each of the parties that hold primaries - Likud, Labor and Kadima - there is now a 'pluralism lobby' comprised of many hundreds of people who enrolled in the party to which they are ideologically closest in order to influence it from within," Hess said. "The primaries system gives party members enormous power: A minister, Knesset member or Knesset candidate will pay a totally different kind of attention to a member of his party, and all the more so to a large group of party members.

"During our campaign, we've discovered Knesset members and ministers in every party whose worldviews are much more open than is known to the public," he added. "Some are even hoping the pluralism lobby will gain greater influence in their parties, in order to promote changes in the area of religion and state."