Meet the Legal Crusader Fighting Israel’s Kahanists and Exclusionists — and Winning

Orly Erez-Likhovski is a key warrior in the battle against extremism in Israel, including the ongoing struggle to secure an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Orly Erez-Likhovski, head of the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center.
Orly Erez-Likhovski, head of the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Late last month, far-right activist Benzi Gopstein — head of the anti-assimilation group Lehava — was indicted for incitement to racism and violence for statements he made against Arabs. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision to press charges against him marked the culmination of a prolonged legal battle lasting nearly 10 years.

In March, the Supreme Court banned Kahanist leader Michael Ben Ari from running in the April election, and in August banned two other members of his extremist Otzma Yehudit party from running in the do-over election. It was the first time since 1992 that the Supreme Court had agreed to disqualify candidates from serving in the Knesset.

In June, the Supreme Court upheld a Jerusalem District Court ruling requiring ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama to pay 1 million shekels (nearly $290,000) to a list of individuals and organizations for refusing to put women on the air. It was the first class-action suit on civil rights in Israel.

In October, a tour guide was awarded 10,000 shekels after two women in his group were pushed out of a cable car near Israel’s Lebanese border because there were ultra-Orthodox men on board. It was the first time that a man in Israel was awarded compensation in a suit involving the exclusion of women.

And in June 2017, Holocaust survivor and retired lawyer Renee Rabinowitz won a landmark suit against El Al, after she sued the airline for forcing her to switch seats when an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit next to her. She won 6,500 shekels in compensation and El Al was required to provide training to all its cabin staff to avoid similar situations in the future.

What do all these cases have in common? Her name is Orly Erez-Likhovski, and she heads the legal department of the Israel Religious Action Center — the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. She’s the person responsible for submitting the petitions and appeals, preparing the briefs and motions, gathering the testimonies and arguing all these cases in court.

Hers might not be a household name, but in recent years she has emerged as a key warrior in the battles being fought in Israel’s courts against racism, religious discrimination and gender exclusion.

Benzi Gopstein from the anti-assimilationist group Lehava.
Benzi Gopstein, from the anti-assimilationist group Lehava.Credit: Emil Salman

Founded in 1987, IRAC was initially established for the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the interests of the Reform movement in Israel. Since then, it has broadened its mandate to include advocacy for other Jewish denominations as well — including some of the more liberal streams of Orthodoxy. For instance, it represented a group of Modern Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh who successfully sued the municipality several years ago, demanding that it tear down modesty signs around the city.

By making the fight against racism another key part of its mission, IRAC has also become an important advocate for Israel’s Arab minority. Surprisingly, though, its recent campaign to bar anti-Arab Kahanists from running for the Knesset was not fully embraced by the progressive left in Israel.

“We definitely heard criticism,” relays Erez-Likhovski. “Some people told us we were playing into the hands of the far right. Others said it was a violation of free speech. But we felt it was more important that a Jewish voice be sounded against the attempt to use Judaism to justify incitement to racism.”

Preparing the case against the Kahanists required Erez-Likhovski and members of her staff to review hours of videotape documenting what she describes as “horrific” statements. “You listen and you feel as though your soul is being poisoned,” she says.

‘Absolute shock’

Erez-Likhovski, 51, was born in Ottawa, Canada, but grew up in the central Israeli city of Rehovot. “I have one sister who’s a dancer and another who teaches acting, so I guess you could say I’m the black sheep of the family being the only one not engaged in the arts,” she says. Her partner, Assaf Likhovski, is a professor of law at Tel Aviv University and the couple has two sons and a daughter.

She obtained her law degree at Tel Aviv University, during which time she also apprenticed at the Supreme Court under retired Justice Shlomo Levin. She went on to pursue her master’s degree in law at New York’s Columbia University, where she was admitted to the bar.

Her connection to the Reform movement came at a later stage of life and almost by coincidence.

“I grew up in a very secular family and had no idea what Reform Judaism was,” she says. “In fact, I was so clueless that in high school, when I was part of an Israeli youth delegation to the United States, I remember seeing a female rabbi wearing a kippa for the first time in my life, and I was in absolute shock.”

Nearly 20 years ago, she and her partner moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, where a friend had highly recommended a day care center for their son that was run by the Reform movement. “That was my first encounter with Reform Judaism,” she recounts. Once settled in, she began looking for work and approached the rabbi of the local Reform congregation. The rabbi suggested that Erez-Likhovski contact Rabbi Gilad Kariv, then a prominent member of the Reform movement in Israel and now its leader, and Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC (as well as chairwoman of Women of the Wall, the multidenominational feminist prayer group).

“The rest is history,” she says.

Today, not only is she an active member of the local Reform congregation (“I attend services, almost without fail, every Friday night”), but also runs a Beit Midrash, together with her rabbi, devoted to key social issues facing Israeli society. On her 50th birthday last year, she held a belated bat mitzvah for herself there. “It was a very emotional experience,” she says.

Along with the triumphs in court, there have also been many moments of frustration and despair. Among those that stick out in Erez-Likhovski’s mind was IRAC’s failed attempt to introduce public transportation in Israel on Shabbat. In 2016, the organization petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of a group of Israelis with disabilities who were unable to drive, arguing that the transportation minister has the authority to approve public transportation of a limited form on Shabbat.

The first-ever public bus operated on Shabbat driving through central Tel Aviv, November 23, 2019.
The first-ever public bus operated on Shabbat driving through central Tel Aviv, November 23, 2019.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP

“We put so much into this case, I don’t even know where to begin,” recounts Erez-Likhovski. “It was almost like preparing a doctorate. And then we get to the court and the petition is immediately thrown out. Just like that. I can’t tell you what a disappointment it was after all we’d invested in this.”

These days, after several Israeli cities (including Tel Aviv) started operating their own bus services on Shabbat, she’s feeling a slight sense of vindication.

No less disappointing have been the numerous setbacks in the quest to obtain a proper prayer space at the Western Wall for the non-Orthodox movements.

After the government reneged on its commitment to create a special egalitarian space for them in June 2017, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the High Court, via IRAC, to force its hand. The case is still pending, with the next court hearing scheduled for mid-January. “Mark my words — the state is going to ask for another extension,” says Erez-Likhovski. “I’ve been doing this long enough to predict their moves in advance.”

And she knows the odds are stacked against her, at least in matters like this. “Israel’s top court has always been reluctant to intervene in matters of religion and state,” she notes.

Erez-Likhovsky joined IRAC as an attorney 15 years ago and became director of the legal department in 2014. A year after she came on board, in 2005, she started representing American-born Miri Gold — a Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer — in what would become a landmark case: a petition forcing the state to include non-Orthodox rabbis on its payroll.

Orly Erez-Likhovski, head of the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center.
Orly Erez-Likhovski photographed in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

The verdict, delivered in 2012, was somewhat limited in scope, applying only to rabbis active in outlying regional councils. Nonetheless, it was considered a major victory for the Reform and Conservative movements.

Even when things don’t turn out as she would have liked in court, she says, the atmosphere is at least civil. The same can’t be said for what goes on outside the courtroom, as she recently discovered while presenting her arguments for disqualifying the Kahanists at hearings held by the Central Elections Committee.

“It felt like a jungle,” she relays. “Everyone was screaming at me. At some point, a woman who lost her daughter in a terror attack got up and began shouting at me. ‘Your daughter should die and then you’d see how it feels,’ she told me. I just had to walk out of the room at that point. I walked out and started crying.”

‘Wear you down’

Erez-Likhovski is in court every few weeks — more often than not, Israel’s top court. As is the custom in Israel, on those days she dresses in black and white and wraps herself in a long black robe (“It’s gotten to the point where I now refuse to wear black and white unless I have to be in court,” she jokes).

But when she’s in her office, located in a beautiful building on the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem, she prefers a casual and comfortable look. On a recent morning, for example, she was dressed in jeans, a sweater and sporty red leather shoes.

She’s a regular at the monthly Women of the Wall prayer gatherings, where she and her fellow activists are frequently derided and attacked by ultra-Orthodox women for daring to pray out loud, wrap themselves in prayer shawls and lay tefillin, as men do.

“Those monthly clashes can definitely wear you down,” she says. “But as strange as this may sound, they’re also a source of optimism for me. The young ultra-Orthodox girls who come, I’ve seen them strike up conversations with some of the girls their age who come with Women of the Wall. These ultra-Orthodox girls are clearly intrigued by what we’re doing, and that’s a good thing.

Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall in May 2018.
Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall in May 2018.Credit: Hila Shiloni

“And then you have the older women who come demonstrate against us. Funnily enough, it seems to me that they’re learning from us and adopting our tactics. They wrap themselves in sheets covered in signs berating us. But if you look at them, it almost seems as though they’re trying to mimic the prayer shawls we wear. And then they spend the whole time shouting at us. Then again, that’s probably the only time you see ultra-Orthodox women at the Kotel raising their voices. I’d like to believe they’re learning from us to make their voices heard.”

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