Many Israelis casting their ballot on March 17 will be paying special attention to what the candidates have to say on matters relating to religion and state in the country, like ultra-Orthodox conscription, gay rights, Jewish pluralism, civil marriage and conversion.
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There is no better time to try and find out where candidates stand on these matters than election season.
Jewish Pluralism Watch, a new watchdog organization set up by the Conservative-Masorti Movement in Israel, set out to do just that when it distributed questionnaires to all 120 parliamentarians shortly after the last Knesset was sworn in. Slightly more than half – 62 Knesset members to be precise – filled them out, and in many cases, more questions were left blank than answered.
The survey responses, recently compiled, are not indicative of attitudes among Israel’s elected officials, since those who chose to participate tended to be more progressive to begin with.
Still, as the JPW’s latest report notes, some of the findings were quite surprising:
Among the ultra-Orthodox parties, one MK completed the survey - Yaakov Margi of Shas, the Sephardic religious party. Margi’s response to the questions generally reflected the overwhelmingly conservative views of his party on matters of religion and state – except in one case.
When asked whether members of the LGBT community should be allowed to marry and have families, here’s what he had to say: “Israeli citizens’ rights cannot be neglected, no matter what they think and how they behave in their personal lives.”
“This is a surprising position, even courageous, when coming from a Knesset member and former religious services minister who is part of the leadership of a Haredi (strictly Orthodox) party," the JPW report noted. Adi Stein of the JPW, who coordinated the survey, said she believes it was the Conservative-Masorti movement logo on the bottom of the questionnaire that discouraged ultra-Orthodox MKs from responding.
Among the ruling Likud party, only four out of 18 MKs – Moshe Feiglin, Tzipi Hotovely, Tzachi Hanegbi and Gila Gamliel – completed the survey. Feiglin, who is Orthodox, said he supported both civil marriage and burial. Hotovely said she supported equal status for the non-Orthodox movements. Both Hanegbi and Gamliel said they supported civil marriage and burial, equal status for the non-Orthodox movements, and gay rights. Among those who preferred to opt out of the survey were some of the rising stars in the party, including Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, Danny Danon, Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev.
Yisrael Beiteinu, the party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, receives much of its electoral support from Russian immigrants whose Jewish credentials have been called into question by Israel’s Orthodox establishment, and the chairman himself has been a vocal supporter of civil marriage in Israel. Yet not even one member of Yisrael Beiteinu filled out the survey.
“Unofficial sources within the party informed us that ignoring the JPW questionnaires was an explicit party decision,” the report notes. Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, according to the report, was particular resistant, referring to the organization’s attempts to elicit information from him as “pestering.”
Eleven out of Yesh Atid's 19 MKs completed the survey. Among those who responded, Dov Lipman, an Orthodox rabbi, said he did not rule out civil unions – not only for straight but for gay couples as well. Aliza Lavie, another Orthodox member of Yesh Atid, expressed reservations about granting full and equal status to the non-Orthodox movements. Among those who opted out of the survey was party chairman and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the man who made fighting the Orthodox establishment his battle cry in the last election.
All but three Labor Party MKs responded to the questionnaire. Those three were Avishay Braverman, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and former party chairwoman, Shelly Yacimovich. All those who responded said they supported either civil unions or civil marriages in Israel, full and equal status for the non-Orthodox movements and gay rights.
Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog – and seemingly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main contender today for the top office in government – noted in his responses that he supports equal status for the non-Orthodox movements in Israel as well as civil marriage.
Meretz and Hatnuah
In both Meretz and Hatnuah, five out of six members responded to the survey. Both Meretz and Hatnuah are known for their progressive platforms on matters of religion and state.
The only member of these two parties whose responses were more cautious was Elazar Stern of Hatnuah. Asked whether the non-Orthodox movements should be given full and equal status, Stern, who is Orthodox, responded: “I am in favor of giving these movements a place in Judaism alongside Orthodoxy.”
In Meretz, it was Issawi Freij, the Arab representative, who opted out – perhaps understandable considering that many of the questions were Jewish-specific. In Hatnuah, it was David Tsur.
Ayelet Shaked, the one non-Orthodox member of Habayit Hayehudi, was the only MK from her party who responded to the survey. Shaked said she supported civil unions but only under circumstances in which couples could not be married by the Orthodox-run Rabbinate in Israel. (That would apply mainly to couples in which one partner was not considered to be Jewish according to halakha.)
She chose not to answer most of the questions, however, including those seeking out her views on gay rights and the status of the non-Orthodox movements.
Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative-Masorati movement in Israel, said he was not overly discouraged by the low rate of response.
“In most western democracies, it’s common for parliamentarians to receive questionnaires from civil society organizations and to respond within a reasonable amount of time,” he noted. “Here, the whole idea of questionnaires is not very well known.”
The JWP said it also plans to distribute a new questionnaire to all those running for the Knesset in the upcoming elections.