Israel’s Liaison to Diaspora Jewry Is Starting to Divulge Her True Colors

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Kahol Lavan lawmaker Omer Yankelevich at the Knesset, 2019
Kahol Lavan lawmaker Omer Yankelevich at the Knesset, 2019. Day after Israel election Likud threatened her in bid to get her to defect.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

She wasn’t exactly the natural choice for Israeli government liaison to the Jewish world. Most of the 8 million Jews living in the Diaspora, after all, are not Orthodox or anything close it.

The appointment of an ultra-Orthodox woman to this particular ministerial position did, in fact, raise some eyebrows, when it was first announced three months ago. But leaders of the progressive and pluralistic Jewish community – both inside and outside Israel – seemed more than willing to give Omer Yankelevich a chance.

Despite being a former Bais Yaakov girl, they would point out, Yankelevich exemplified the “new Haredi” community – in other words, ultra-Orthodox Jews who are more liberal and accepting. They would cite her decision to throw her lot in with Kahol Lavan, a party that had waved the flag of secularism at least at one point during its recent election campaigns and had vowed to legalize civil marriage, grant gay couples full surrogacy rights, repeal the law preventing shops from opening on Shabbat and allow cities to operate public transportation on Saturdays.

They would note that her son served in the army and that her daughter had spent a gap year as a Jewish Agency envoy in the United States – not common at all in ultra-Orthodox society. They would note that her five children did not attend Haredi schools and even though she looked and dressed like a Haredi woman – with her long-haired sheitel, or wig, and modest clothing – as a daughter of ba’alei tshuva (secular Jews who became Orthodox later in life), she was not seen as part of the mainstream community.

Nearly three months after her appointment as Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, it is still hard to know where Yankelevich, 42, stands on matters of paramount interest to world Jewry. She does not give interviews to the press (three requests by Haaretz in recent months were declined) or make herself available for questions. By following her on social media, however, where she leaves many tracks of her activities, it is possible to gain a bit of insight into this mystery woman.

Recently, for example, Yankelevich has been on several outings to the West Bank, where she was warmly welcomed by settler leaders. Quite a number of her posts on social media are translated into English for the benefit of her followers abroad. The posts pertaining to her trips to the settlements were not.

After a visit last week to the Shomron region in the northern West Bank, she was unusually forthcoming about her political leanings. Referring to the settlers as “pioneers of our generation,” Yankelevich tweeted: “We need to remember and remind others always that this is our land and not to be ashamed to say that.”

For a woman who has made a point, since entering politics, of keeping her views to herself and trying to make everyone happy, it was quite a statement – generating speculation that Yankelevich might be on the way to defecting to Likud.

Indeed, ever since Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz plucked her out of anonymity and recruited her to his new political party, Yankelevich has been considered a weak link – a likely candidate to cave to pressure to bolt and give Likud the extra seat or two it needs to form a right-wing coalition that would allow it to break free from its problematic partnership with Kahol Lavan.

Such rumors gained further traction late last week when it emerged that Yankelevich had held a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Gantz hadn’t been invited. She was eventually forced to issue a statement denying that anything had been discussed aside from special programs her ministry was planning to run during the pandemic.

Based on her social media posts, Yankelevich is spending a lot of time promoting Chabad, the Orthodox outreach movement, and meeting with its leaders. This week she unveiled a new after-school Jewish studies program that her ministry is funding for children in the former Soviet bloc countries, in partnership with Chabad. Late last month, she visited Kfar Chabad, a coronavirus hot zone, and announced that she had succeed, through the help of her mentor, Defense Minister Gantz, to secure special government assistance for the town. Although Kfar Chabad is located in central Israel, she praised Gantz in her post for being especially attentive to the needs of “peripheral and excluded” groups.

Kfar Chabad, incidentally, is not only a coronavirus hotbed. During the recent elections, an unusually high percentage of voters in this town cast their ballots for Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power” in Hebrew), a far-right, anti-Arab party founded by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. The Kahanist party also did well in other town with large Chabad enclaves.

MK Omer Yankelevich at a Kahol Lavan press conference after Israel's second Knesset election of the year, September 19, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yankelevich recently paid a visit to the museum set up to commemorate the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip, evacuated 15 years ago this month. “The uprooting of Gush Katif is still an open and bleeding wound,” she wrote on Twitter, using a metaphor that is popular in the settler movement. “I felt on my flesh the pain of those uprooted. The state of Israel owes them a lot.” (This post was not translated into English either.)

Red carpet treatment

When Yankelevich was first placed on the Kahol Lavan list, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community tried to distance themselves from her. In Haredi society, women are discouraged from entering politics, and the two Haredi parties that today have representations in the Knesset – the Ashkenazi-affiliated United Torah Judaism and the Sephardi-affiliated Shas – do not allow women on their rosters. Yankelevich is not the first Haredi women to get elected to the Knesset, however: Tzvia Greenfield served as a lawmaker for the left-wing Meretz party between 2008 and 2009.

Even though Yankelevich self-identifies as Haredi, many in the community would not consider her one of them and insist she is more representative of the religious Zionist movement.

Taking stock of her time in office, what is perhaps most surprising, then, is the red carpet treatment she has received in the ultra-Orthodox world – and not only among Chabad Hasidim. Yankelevich has been hosted by the mayors of Bnai Brak, Elad and Telz-Stone – three ultra-Orthodox strongholds – where not only did she obtain permission to have herself photographed with large groups of men, but her visits were also widely covered in the Haredi press. Her focus on the ultra-Orthodox community has given rise to speculation that Gantz may be using Yankelevich to lure the Haredi parties over to his side if and when the coalition government collapses, which could be a matter of months based on recent developments.

Strikingly absent from Yankelevich’s social media pages are accounts of the meetings she has held with leaders of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. For the record, nothing of substance has emerged from these meetings – no agreements, for example, on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall or on recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions. What has been noted, however, is that Yankelevich treats rabbis from the non-Orthodox movements with great respect – something not to be taken for granted from a Haredi woman.

A little less than a month ago, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy, which aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ people but is widely discredited by experts as ineffectual and harmful. Until then, Yankelevich had managed to avoid any and all questions related to her position on gay rights. Almost all the members of Kahol Lavan, contrary to Likud, voted in favor of the bill. Yankelevich absented herself from the plenum that day.

Yankelevich tweets about a visit to Kfar Chabad

Even in the best of times, Yankelevich’s is a rather inconsequential ministry. The Jewish Agency has traditionally served as liaison between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, sometimes receiving support from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which has its own Diaspora division. The Diaspora affairs portfolio has mainly served the purpose of a negotiating card in government coalition talks – a way to lure in reluctant parties.

Traveling to Jewish communities in the Diaspora and meeting with Jewish delegations visiting Israel from abroad has always been the bread and butter of those filling this job. But Yankelevich assumed the position in the midst of the global pandemic, when face-to-face meetings with representatives of the Diaspora have become impossible. Major Jewish conferences held in Israel every year – at which the minister of Diaspora affairs would traditionally serve as a keynote speaker – have been moved to Zoom. Birthright, the biggest Jewish world project of them all – an organization that brings tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel every year – has for all intents and purposes shut down until further notice.

And so, Yankelevich has been forced to find ways of filling the vacuum that’s been created. Although she has started putting out hints about which way she leans, for the most part, she remains a big question mark. Perhaps one of the most telling things is something she chose not to do since taking office: In contrast to almost every other minister in the current government, Yankelevich did not bring in a new director general when she stepped into her job. Dvir Kahana, who has filled the role for the past seven years, was appointed by Naftali Bennett, who served as minister of Diaspora affairs – if only part-time – for most of that period.

Kahana is very much a product of the religious, right-wing settler movement – almost as far as it gets from the classic Kahol Lavan voter. It is hard to believe that the reason Yankelevich kept him on is because she couldn’t find anyone else qualified for the job. As things look today, though, with the prospect of another election on the horizon, Kahana may end up outlasting his new boss as well.

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