Pro-gay, Pro-women, pro-Arab: Israel's Most Unorthodox ultra-Orthodox Lawmaker

Yakov Margi supports gay rights, has no problem with women wearing prayer shawls, and backs a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Knesset Member Yakov Margi.
Emil Salman

Religious vs. secular. Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi. Right vs. left. Jew vs. Arab.

This obsessive preoccupation with labeling, observes Knesset Member Yakov Margi, leads many Israelis to assume they know exactly what goes on in the minds and hearts of those on the opposite side, when they really don’t have a clue.

Take him, for example.

On the face of it, this 55-year-old politician is the ultimate Shas man. He’s been with the ultra-Orthodox party, whose voters hold a strong right-wing orientation, from the outset. Along the way, he’s filled a long list of municipal, partliamentary and government functions, including minister of religious affairs. With his dark suit, black beard and black kippa, he most definitely dresses the part of the religious conservative.

Yet scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll discover how much Margi defies any labels. To call him an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights might be far-fetched, but when asked, he will acknowledge he has no problem with same-sex couples doing whatever they want behind closed doors. Although he belongs to a party that has never admitted women into its ranks, he does not object to women donning phylacteries and prayer shawls – practices the ultra-Orthodox usually reserve for men –  as long as it’s not done with the intent to incite or provoke. One of Israel’s most pressing social problems, he believes, is discrimination against its Arab minority.
 “Israel must be more generous to the Arab community living among us,” he says. “That is the only way to guarantee true coexistence here.” And while his party may be a key partner in one of the most right-wing coalitions that ever governed the country, he is a strong believer in the two-state solution and in trading land for peace.

In a rare interview last week, Margi said that like “80 percent of Israelis, and that’s a modest estimate” he considers himself part of the political center.

 “Just because I’m religious, I’m against peace?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s the problem with labels in this country. The majority in this country, like me, wants a peace deal. Anyone who says he wants a bi-national state has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s a bluff. A bi-national state will ultimately become one state, and there won’t be room for the Jews in it because it will be ruled by Islamic jihadists.”

He may belong to the political mainstream, but within his own party, and especially when it comes to matters of religion and state, Margi is a definite oddball. The only Knesset member for an Orthodox party to fill out a survey distributed last year by Jewish Pluralism Watch, an organization founded by the Conservative movement in Israel, he provided some rather unexpected responses. For example, asked if he supported full legal rights for gays in Israel, including the right to wed, Margi wrote the following: “It is forbidden to deprive citizens of the state of Israel of their rights, and it doesn’t matter what they think or how they behave in their personal affairs.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement, recalls being taken by surprise with some of Margi’s responses, not to mention his willingness to cooperate with a pluralistic initiative to begin with. “I’m not sure if compliments from me will gain Margi any new fans in Shas, but it is important to recognize and pay tribute to the fact that there is also nuance in a party like his,” he said.

Like many of his party’s voters, who hail mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, Margi was born in Morocco. After his family moved to Israel, he grew up in one of Be'er Sheva's most destitute neighborhoods, one of nine children. Coming of age in Israel’s periphery, he says, may explain his out-of-the-box views. “People in this country don’t understand that there’s a big difference between haredim [ultra-Orthodox] from the big cities, like Jerusalem and B’nei Brak, and those from the outlying areas of the country,” he says. “It’s an entirely different world.”

After serving in the army, he trained as a tax consultant but was best known in the neighborhood as a social activist. Precisely for that reason, he was aggressively recruited by Shas when the party was formed in the mid-1980s. “It wasn’t that I decided to go into politics,” he recalls, “it was they who came after me.” After serving in various party functions at the municipal level, he joined the Knesset in 2003 and has served there ever since. Married with two children, Margi lives today in an agricultural community just outside Be'er Sheva where in his spare time, he says, he devotes himself to gardening and poetry writing.  “

Make no mistake. On issues that are at the heart and soul of Israel’s religious establishment, Margi is careful to toe the party line. For example, even though most couples marrying in Israel are not observant, he believes the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate should maintain its control over marriage laws in the country. That does not mean there is no room for improvement. “Everyone knows we have a problem on our hands,” he acknowledges. “There’s lots of dissatisfaction with the system, and I would be the last person to say it’s perfect. There’s a lot more that can be done to make it friendlier and more accommodating to young couples. But let’s face it – with all the dissatisfaction, the lion’s share of young couples still come to the rabbinate to get married.”

On the touchy subject of conversion, he prefers to focus, as he puts it, on the half glass that is full. In other words, if out of the 1.1 million Russian-speakers who immigrated to Israel since the early 1990s, “only” 300,000 have not been recognized as Jews by religious law, to Margi’s mind, that is evidence that the Chief Rabbinate has done a fantastic job of getting all the rest through the system. “It’s important that people realize that to become Jewish, there has to be a basic minimum they’re willing to do. Perhaps more could be done to make the process smoother, but to see this as the root of all evil in Israeli society? That’s crazy.”

How does someone who opposes excluding women from the public sphere, as he noted in the Jewish Pluralism Watch survey, accept the exclusion of women from his own political party?  “Give it time,” Margi says. “It’s a process. Personally, I don’t have a problem with women in the party, and I venture to say that in 10, 15, maybe even 20 years, it will happen.”

In fact, he discloses, some of his best friends in the Knesset are women. “You’d be surprised, but I’m talking about women from Meretz and Yesh Atid,” he says, referring to two secular parties.

Asked if gays would find themselves welcome in his own synagogue, Margi responds without hesitation: “As long as they don’t wear a sign declaring their sexual preference, why not? In fact, they would be probably be invited to read from the Torah and welcomed with a kiss.”