Bennett's Religious Services Ministry Takeover Portends Change

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Habayit Hayehudi’s assumption of the Religious Services Ministry must be viewed in the context of party chairman Naftali Bennett’s desire to effect a religious Zionist revolution. Will the ministry receive the radical changes it so desperately needs, or will it keep on providing jobs for political hacks while ineffectively serving the public?

The National Religious Party, a precursor of Habayit Hayehudi, was a kingmaker until losing that role to the ultra-Orthodox parties in the 1980s. Now it is returning to its roots.

A ministry for religious affairs was the aspiration of the Mizrahi movement − another ancestor of the NRP − to serve as the country’s provider of religious services while benefiting from jobs in local rabbinates and religious councils.

But in the mid-1980s − when the NRP and its offshoots began focusing on the settlements, and the more strictly observant Zionist rabbis began conceding to the ultra-Orthodox on religious and ideological issues − religious Zionism lost its ability to affect the state’s Jewish identity.

Bennett wants to regain that influence, one reason right-wing Zionist rabbis have been criticizing him in recent days. They fear, perhaps justifiably, that the heir to Zerach Warhaftig, Yosef Burg and Zevulun Hammer is searching for an alternative to the Haredim for everything linked to statism, the Chief Rabbinate, conversions, religious councils and the rabbinic courts.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, which was closed in 2003 with its responsibilities divided between the Prime Minister’s Office, the Education Ministry and the Justice Ministry, was revived by Ehud Olmert as the Religious Services Ministry four years later as part of a coalition agreement with Shas. Netanyahu extended the ministry’s reach further, and now he plans to extend it even further under his commitments to Habayit Hayehudi.

According to people in the negotiating teams, Habayit Hayehudi demanded two areas of authority that have not been returned to the ministry − responsibility for the rabbinic courts, which is still with the Justice Ministry, and responsibility for the yeshiva budgets, currently with the Education Ministry.

Women’s groups vehemently oppose removing the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry’s supervision. So it seems likely that only the yeshiva budgets will go back to the ministry. This request by Bennett was presumably related to the issue of getting more Haredim into the army, since under many proposals on drafting Haredim the main sanctions to be imposed if the community doesn’t meet draft quotas will involve yeshiva funding.

Eli Ben Dahan, who will apparently be named deputy minister with full responsibility for the ministry, has said he would consider adopting the Tzohar model for registering marriages and let couples register for marriage where they pleased. He also supports making city rabbis retire at 70.

At a recent panel of the Torah and Labor Faithful, which represents religious Zionism’s more moderate wing, Ben Dahan said he would back the right of every Jew to access community and religious services in accordance with his personal preferences, whether religious or secular. But he evaded the question of whether this would include services provided by Reform or Conservative bodies.

While Ben Dahan is considered a representative of the stricter religious-Zionist factions, criticism of him by the more right-wing rabbis shows they aren’t sure about him, especially after he supported Bennett in his moves against the Haredim. More liberal elements are optimistic about him, however.

“He had a very successful record as the rabbinical courts administrator,” notes Hadar Lifschitz, a lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a member of the Torah and Labor Faithful. “He comes from within and knows the system. There’s reason for hope.”

A boy looking at a poster opposing drafting Haredim in Jerusalem.Credit: Gili Cohen-Magen

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