Israeli Minister Threatens to Quit Government if Reform Jews Aren't Weakened

United Torah Judaism's Yaakov Litzman set to demand legislation from Netanyahu to preserve dominance of the ultra-Orthodox in managing religious issues.

United Torah Judaism Chair Yaakov Litzman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Health Minister and United Torah Judaism Chair Yaakov Litzman threatened Friday that his faction of the party, Agudat Yisrael, would quit the coalition without legislation aimed at limiting the power of non-Orthodox movements in Israel and solidifying Orthodox Judaism's dominance. Litzman and representatives of other ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to voice their demands to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

The demand from the Knesset's ultra-Orthodox parties grew out of disappointment in the ultra-Orthodox community over recent achievements for the Reform and Conservative movements, including a government decision on January 31 to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall to accommodate the liberal movement and a Supreme Court ruling that Conservative and Reform Jews can use Jewish ritual baths (mikvehs) operated by the religious councils.

Litzman made his ultimatum public at a fundraiser for the Gur Hasidic sect on Friday, saying that, "Agudat Yisrael will quit the government if a law is not approved to reduce all of the reformists," according to the website bhol.co.il.

His remarks aligned with the orders of United Torah Judaism's Council of Torah Sages, who met two weeks ago in light of recent developments. After the meeting, the council's secretary sent a letter to the party's Knesset members instructing them "to stipulate cooperation with the government on the legislation of a law that the status quo on issues of religion and state has existed for decades in Israel, saying that all religious and Judaism issues are to be managed by the ultra-Orthodox and not by Reformists and has to be preserved as it was." The rabbis, including the head of Litzman's sect, insisted they be updated on the issue within 30 days.

The meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday was called for due to the disappointment of the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly in ultra-Orthodox media, regarding the accomplishments of the Reform movement. It was also sparked by another letter, from Israel's Chief Rabbinate Council, demanding that the government freeze its decision from regarding egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. 

Since the chances of such a demand being met are slim, it seems that the ultra-Orthodox ministers will focus most of their efforts on extracting a commitment from Netanyahu to maintaining the status of the ulta-Orthodox in Israel. The ministers may also seek clarifications stating that the decision on the Western Wall does not constitute recognition of Reform or Conservative streams.