The Social Justice Warrior Fighting to Change Netanyahu's Government From Within

Lawmaker Rachel Azaria has scathing words for settler leaders, but for now her vote still goes to the most right-wing government in Israel's history.

Rachel Azaria, lawmaker for the Kulanu party and possibly the most leftist politician in Israel's right-wing coalition.
Emil Salman

The Knesset Finance Committee is a mean and raucous place on the best of days, but usually, the lines of battle are clearly drawn. The coalition members look out for their own, making sure their constituents are duly rewarded for keeping the government in power, while the opposition fights to stop them from exploiting their majority to misappropriate state funds. 

Rarely, though, do fighting matches erupt between members of the same political camp. And that may explain why Rachel Azaria’s scathing attack on fellow coalition member Bezalel Smotrich at a recent session of this powerful parliamentary committee made big national news.

“You are a disgrace to the kippa on your head,” she lashes out at him in a video that has been making the rounds, accusing Smotrich of “extorting more than anyone has ever dared extort from the state” for the benefit of a few isolated West Bank settlements.

Rachel Azarias scathing attack on fellow coalition member Bezalel Smotrich. Youtube

If Smotrich, the Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker who maintains there is no such thing as Jewish terrorists, is the most extreme right-wing member of the ruling coalition, then Azaria of the center-right Kulanu party is probably its most left-leaning. 

Asked if she would consider that an accurate description, the 38-year-old mother of four hesitates before responding. “This government is very right-wing and conservative,” she said in a recent interview with Haaretz, “and I happen to be a member of the most liberal party in it. In that party – I guess it depends on what – but I guess you could say I’m one of the most liberal voices.”

Azaria has been serving in the Knesset for less than a year, but she’s no stranger to politics. Her foray into national politics follows seven years at the Jerusalem municipality where, in her latest position, she served as deputy mayor, distinguishing herself as an advocate for women’s rights and affordable childcare.

Then, as now, she made her mark as an oppositionist of sorts within the governing coalition. “I strongly believe that the real way to affect change is through the system,” she says, “and I learned that from my days in City Hall, where 40 percent of the coalition was Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. It’s not an ideal situation obviously, but I’ve learned how to make the best of these circumstances.”

Founder and head of the pluralist Yerushalmim party, Azaria was not only ostracized by the ultra-Orthodox members of the Jerusalem city council when she served alongside them, but also by her boss. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat fired her during her first stint in City Hall for going behind his back to the Supreme Court to try to force a ruling that would prevent exclusion and segregation of women in public spaces.

Rachel Azaria at a 2011 protest in Jerusalem against exclusion of women from the public sphere.
Michal Fattal

Azaria is now taking her passion for social justice to the national level. In recent weeks, she has been actively engaged in promoting new legislation that would increase the minimum number of yearly vacation days for employees from 10 to 12. Another bill she has been pushing would provide fathers of newborns with more time off from work

On matters of religion and state, she has been working behind the scenes to break the Orthodox monopoly on kashrut certification and to make Orthodox-run mikvehs, or ritual baths, more user-friendly. “A lot of my efforts in the Knesset are devoted to blocking legislation by ultra-Orthodox parties that would change the status quo and move us backwards,” she notes.

Even though her outburst at Smotrich might suggest otherwise, Azaria tries to steer clear of more highly controversial issues in the Knesset. When asked where she stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her response is vague. “I think we have to work first on figuring out our own identity before we can work on our relationship with the Palestinians,” she says. “Twenty years after the Oslo accords, we’re still arguing about a few centimeters on the map. That, to me, says that the conflict is about something much deeper. But before we can start resolving it, we have to first work out who we are and what we stand for.”

Still, she believes that the religious Zionist movement, in which she grew up, could benefit from some serious soul-searching, following the recent wave of attacks by religious settlers on Arab and Palestinian targets. “There’s a small group among the religious Zionists who have become extremely radical, but instead of coming out against them, mainstream religious Zionists protect them. And that’s what I was yelling at Bezalel about,” she says. 

That yelling was also out of character for Azaria, who ever since being sworn-in to the Knesset, has been on an almost Pollyannaish campaign to try to get the warring factions of Israeli society to stop fighting and make nice. “What I learned from my years in city politics and what has become even more obvious today,” she explains, “is that nobody is going to disappear. Instead of putting so much energy into explaining why the other side is wrong, we need to work on finding common ground, so that together, we can fight the radical forces that threaten us all.”

Azaria grew up in an Orthodox home in Beit Gamliel, an agricultural community near Rehovot, where she was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Her mother was born in Oklahoma, the heart of dustbowl America, to Zionist parents who traveled to Israel frequently. Azaria’s maternal grandfather, in fact, helped establish the geology department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“After she finished high school, my mom came to Israel to volunteer for a year, and then one day, she called my grandparents and told them she was staying,” recounts Azaria.  It was in her social work class at Hebrew University that Azaria’s mother met her father, one of 10 siblings from a poor immigrant family from Tunisia.  A few months ago, Azaria’s grandmother, aged 90, realized the dream of her life and finally joined her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Israel. “She called us and said there weren’t any more excuses left not to make aliyah,” says Azaria.

After serving in the army, Azaria moved to Jerusalem to begin her psychology studies at Hebrew University. But that wasn’t the only draw of the big city for her. “What I liked about Jerusalem is that you could be Orthodox there without having to look Orthodox,” she says. Indeed, Azaria does not dress the part of the observant woman: Not only does she wear pants, but she doesn’t cover her hair. “In the summer it’s more obvious that I’m Orthodox,” she acknowledges, “because I don’t wear sleeveless shirts.”

Her husband, Elyashiv Frankel, is an elementary school teacher who holds a doctorate in Talmud studies, and the couple lives in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood. Azaria began her social activism as an environmentalist, serving on the board of Green Course, a volunteer organization. For three years, she also held the position of director of Mavoi Satum, a non-profit that assists "agunot" – women denied religious divorces by their husbands.  She was fired from that job, though, over irreconcilable differences with the board.

That would be the first of many scuffles for her over the years. Members of the opposition parties in the Jerusalem city council, for example, often called her out for being too cozy with the ultra-Orthodox parties and putting coalition interests above her principles.

Seeking compromise: Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria speaking with ultra-Orthodox colleagues in the Knesset.
Tomer Appelbaum

Similar criticism is heard today. Some of her old colleagues, who spoke to Haaretz off the record, ask how can a person who once headed Mavoi Satum, a non-profit funded by leftist New Israel Fund, support a coalition that is pushing ahead legislation to monitor such organizations?  And how can a person who called herself a champion of social justice sit quietly in a coalition that approves a controversial natural gas deal that has been criticized as benefiting big monopolies?

Such questions have even greater relevance given that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition relies on a single-seat majority in parliament.

But as Azaria sees it, anyone who wants to affect change from within must be open to the notion of compromise.

Her dream job? “Minister of Economy, obviously.”