Israel Failing to Address Most Pressing Issues of Religious Pluralism, Watchdog Claims

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Rosh Chodesh prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 27, 2017.
Rosh Chodesh prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 27, 2017. Credit: Emil Salman

Not one meaningful piece of legislation promoting religious pluralism in Israel was passed during the Knesset’s winter session, which ended in late March, according to a report prepared by a watchdog organization that monitors the issue. 

Although considerable attention was paid to matters of religion and state during the five-month Knesset session, Jewish Pluralism Watch noted in its latest report that all the related amendments passed and regulations enacted were merely “cosmetic” in nature and “for the most part do not touch the core of Israel’s religion and state challenges.”

“Some of these cosmetic efforts are important, at times even helpful,” the report conceded. “But they are not the most critical.” 

On sensitive issues like Shabbat and kashrut observance and prayer at the Western Wall, the report charged that Israeli parliamentarians preferred that the High Court of Justice do their “dirty work” for them, resisting any legislative initiatives that might upset the status quo.

Established several years ago by the Conservative movement in Israel, Jewish Pluralism Watch keeps tabs on the voting records of Israeli parliamentarians, as well as on their positions and statements on matters of religion and state. The latest report contains a ranking, which divides Israeli lawmakers up into four categories based on their attitudes toward religious pluralism: committed leaders, supporters, indifferent and opponents. The vast majority (81 out of 119 Knesset members) fall into the latter two categories. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also a Knesset member, is not included in the count.)

Of the 15 Knesset members categorized as leaders, all but four represent opposition parties. These four include Yehudah Glick of Likud, best known for leading the controversial campaign to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. 

Of the 23 Knesset members categorized as opponents of religious pluralism, all are men and, aside from just a handful, members of the Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition. 

The list of 52 Knesset members categorized as indifferent to religious pluralism includes three members of Labor currently vying for party leadership – Amir Peretz, Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev – as well as former Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich. It also includes Ilan Gilon, who recently announced his intention to run for chairman of Meretz, the left-wing opposition party, as well as virtually all the Arab members of Knesset. 

The list of 29 supporters of religious pluralism includes four party leaders (three of them from the opposition): Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Galon, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing religious Habayit Hayehudi. Bennett also holds the Diaspora Affairs portfolio, and unlike many other Orthodox members of the Knesset, has demonstrated tolerance toward the Reform and Conservative movements.

The report found that of all the factions in the Knesset, Yesh Atid was most engaged in matters of religion and state, its members submitting a total of 14 bills aimed at promoting Jewish pluralism. The Arab Joint List was the least engaged, with only three bills submitted by its members.

Looking ahead to the Knesset summer session, which begins on May 7, the report predicts that Shabbat and kashrut observance, as well as prayer at the Western Wall, will continue to be the main religion and state items on its agenda.

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