Looking at the Mikveh Half Full: Religious Freedom Advocates See Upside in New Gantz-Netanyahu Government

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A member of an LGBT delegation and an ultra-Orthodox man praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in 2017.
A member of an LGBT delegation and an ultra-Orthodox man praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in 2017.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

He ran in three election campaigns over the past year, but most Israelis have no idea what Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz really thinks or where he stands on most issues. The prime minister-in-waiting did a good job of keeping his positions as vague as possible – presumably so as not to offend any potential voters.

But there is one key exception: Gantz was very clear on matters of religion and state. Indeed, in his very first campaign speech in January 2019, the former army general vowed to revive the Western Wall deal that was meant to grant full and equal rights to the Reform and Conservative movements at the Jewish holy site. That the long-forgotten agreement – suspended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners in June 2017 – should get a mention in Gantz’s inaugural remarks was considered telling.

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In billboards plastered around the country last September, Gantz pledged to set up a “secular unity government” if elected. He agreed in advance to accept Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s list of demands aimed at fighting religious coercion. And his party platform promised nothing less than a revolution in matters of religion and state. It vowed to legalize civil marriage; establish a friendlier national conversion system; repeal the law preventing shops from operating on Shabbat; allow cities to operate public transportation on the Sabbath; open up the national kashrut certification system to competition; increase representation of women in state-run religious institutions; grant single-sex male couples full surrogacy rights; prohibit exclusion of women from public spaces; and create many more options for civil burial.

Needless to say, there was great disappointment among many Gantz voters when he signed a coalition agreement last month that avoided any reference whatsoever to matters of religion and state.

Under the terms of the three-year deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months and then Gantz for the next year and a half. Even though Kahol Lavan has far fewer seats in the Knesset – after the party split into four separate factions when Gantz and his deputy, Gabi Ashkenazi, opted to go into government with Netanyahu, to the consternation of erstwhile political partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon – the agreement stipulates that the two parties will have same number of ministers.

Not only does the coalition agreement completely disregard past promises made by Kahol Lavan; it also stipulates that the new government cannot introduce any legislation not related to fighting the coronavirus during the first six months of its tenure. That automatically rules out any progress on religious freedom and pluralism that require legislation – for example, bills advancing civil marriage or conversion reform – until late 2020.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz on Election Night, March 3, 2020. By the end of the month, he had commenced talks to be part of a Netanyahu government and his party had split.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Whose policy was it anyway?

“It’s hard for me to see anything major happening one way or another during this emergency unity government, as they’re calling it,” says Dan Feferman, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and author of a recent report on the non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

So far, he says, it looks like the new government will include Likud, Kahol Lavan, the two ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and Yamina, the settler-aligned religious party. But it is already clear that none of the parties known for their commitment to fighting religious coercion – specifically, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu – will be part of it.

“It just doesn’t seem that matters of religion and state are going to be a focal point in this government,” Feferman says.

He wonders now whether Gantz was ever really committed to religious freedom and pluralism, or whether he was simply taking his marching orders on the subject from Lapid.

“Gantz is not religious, but he grew up in a traditional moshav [agricultural community] and has had close relations with parts of the religious world,” Feferman says, “so looking back, I’m not sure how much this was about Gantz’s own positions or Lapid pushing a certain line.”

Yesh Atid’s Elazar Stern was a member of the team that drafted Kahol Lavan’s platform on religion and state. “To my great regret,” he says, “I don’t expect any new laws pertaining to kashrut, marriage and divorce, or conversions to take effect with this new government.”

Yesh Atid lawmaker Elazar Stern, March 2020: “I don’t expect any new laws pertaining to kashrut, marriage and divorce, or conversions to take effect with this new government.”Credit: Moti Milrod

Stern, himself an Orthodox Jew, notes that both the religious services and interior ministries are expected to remain in the hands of ultra-Orthodox parties. “These are the two portfolios that have the most control over religion and state matters in Israel,” he says.

Stern predicts that under the new government, Israelis will grow further alienated from state-run religious institutions like the Chief Rabbinate. “But I think we will also see more and more Israelis embracing their own forms of Judaism that don’t involve any state intervention,” he says.

Nerya Knafo, the director of Jewish Pluralism Watch – a watchdog organization run by the Conservative movement in Israel – is doubly disappointed with Gantz. Not only did the Kahol Lavan leader fail to win any concessions from Netanyahu on religious freedom during their negotiations, he says, but he never even made any demands. “Not even for one symbolic thing,” Knafo laments. “I guess he didn’t even bother because he figured there was no chance, given that Netanyahu’s religious coalition partners were already part of the deal.”

However, Knafo also finds reason for optimism. “This outgoing government was effectively controlled by the ultra-Orthodox parties,” he says. “That won’t be the case with this government because under the coalition agreement, Kahol Lavan will have the same number of ministries as Likud. While legislation is probably out of the question, there is definitely a lot of potential for progress through these ministries.”

Knafo notes, for example, that Kahol Lavan is meant to take over the Culture Ministry, which is responsible for funding the non-Orthodox movements. The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, which determines policy on adoption and surrogacy, is likely to be handed to Itzik Shmuli of the Labor Party, which has joined forces with Kahol Lavan. Openly gay himself, Shmuli is expected to take a progressive approach to the rights of same-sex couples in such matters.

“By changing regulations and moving budgets around, there is a lot that can be done to advance religious freedom that doesn’t require legislation,” Knafo says. “So I believe this is a good start.”

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, left, and MK Itzik Shmuli. Both are expected to get ministerial appointments in the new government.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

‘Strongly motivated’

Israel Hofsheet Executive Director Uri Keidar, whose nonprofit promotes religious freedom and pluralism, tends to agree. “The number of people in this government who share our views has risen dramatically, very dramatically,” he says. Keidar is particularly encouraged by the fact that Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz is likely to take charge of the Economy and Industry Ministry. “Many of the rules regarding what stays open on Shabbat are set by this ministry,” he says.

In order to justify their controversial decision to join forces with Netanyahu, Keidar also believes the center-left parties will be strongly motivated “to show results” and prove themselves to the opposition.

Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, particularly takes heart from the fact that both the justice and Diaspora affairs ministries will be handed over to Kahol Lavan.

The Justice Ministry, she says, has the power to end gender exclusion in Israel, while the Diaspora Affairs Ministry controls large budgets that can be used, she hopes, to promote initiatives of a more pluralistic nature than in the past.

“It helps having people who are sympathetic to our position – certainly much more so than they were in the past – in ministries like these,” Sattath says. At the same time, she does not expect any real progress in legislation, even after the six-month freeze ends, because under the coalition agreement, all subsequent legislation brought to the Knesset must be approved in advance by both Likud and Kahol Lavan. “So basically things will stay as they are,” she predicts.

Any big revolutions, she adds, will have to wait for another government.