What U.S. Jews Can Expect From the Next Netanyahu Government — and It's Not Religious Pluralism

Leading figures in the Reform and Conservative movements predict what will lie ahead if, as expected, the prime minister opts for a right-wing and religious ruling coalition — and which unlikely lawmaker they may have to pin their hopes on

Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman gives the Chief Rabbi of the IDF permission to sell leavened goods to non-Jews before Passover in a traditional ceremony at IDF headquarters, March 26, 2018.
Shachar Levy / Ministry of Defense

Israeli civil society groups and their progressive Jewish allies certainly put up a good fight. But given the composition of the outgoing government, their struggle to promote religious freedom and pluralism in Israel was doomed from the start.

If anything, the most recent Netanyahu government will be remembered for several key setbacks to the cause. There was the — ultimately scrapped — Western Wall deal, which was supposed to create a new space for egalitarian prayer at the Jewish site where the non-Orthodox movements would have obtained official recognition. There was the recently passed law that stripped local municipalities of the power to keep shops open on Shabbat. There was the latest attempt to reform the conversion system in Israel — in this case, one that would disempower the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate — which never even saw the light of day.  There was the first ever arrest of a rabbi for performing weddings outside the auspices of the Rabbinate. And there was a new law that denies gay men the right to surrogacy services.

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Now that we know who will be serving in Israel’s next Knesset, is there any reason to expect a change of course?  Much, obviously, will depend on which parties end up forming the governing coalition. Will it be a narrow right-wing/religious coalition or a national unity government that includes Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan but excludes the far-right religious parties?

As it looks now, Netanyahu appears resolved to pursue the former option because it would improve his chances of political survival. The far-right religious parties, after all, have already indicated their willingness to try to keep Netanyahu from facing trial on three separate corruption charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

This is obviously a less promising scenario for those who champion religious pluralism and freedom.

“I’d say the best we could hope for at this point — and even this is a long shot — is that things don’t get worse,” says Nerya Knafo, the director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, a Knesset watchdog group sponsored by the Conservative movement in Israel.

Responding to the election results, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, expressed a similar sense of trepidation. “We have deep concern that the new government will deepen the discrimination against the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, continue to undermine the democratic values and institutions of Israel, and discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel,” he said in a written statement.

Greater resistance

Looking at the numbers alone, the incoming 21st Knesset is actually slightly less religious than the outgoing one. The three religious parties in the 20th Knesset — Habayit Hayehudi (religious Zionist), United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi-affiliated ultra-Orthodox) and Shas (Mizrahi-affiliated ultra-Orthodox) — controlled 21 seats. This time, the three religious parties — UTJ, Shas and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (an alliance of Habayit Hayehudi, Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union and Otzma Yehudit, a party founded by followers of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane) — have 20 seats.

But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In the outgoing Knesset, the two ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties controlled 13 seats; in the incoming Knesset, they will control 15. Furthermore, the newly formed Union of Right-Wing Parties is far more ultra-Orthodox in orientation than Habayit Hayehudi was in the previous parliament.

Bezalel Smotrich receives congratulations after the Union of Right-Wing Parties wins five seats in the Knesset, April 9, 2019.
\ Ilan Assayag

Naftali Bennett, who chaired Habayit Hayehudi before leaving last December to set up Hayamin Hehadash — a new right-wing party that didn’t cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold — had even supported the original Western Wall deal. The new party he founded, which had both religious and nonreligious candidates on its slate, had promised to support Jewish tradition but to fight religious coercion. 

And so, while the religious bloc may have lost one seat in the incoming Knesset, considering where its members are positioned on the religious spectrum, it will likely be even more resistant to attempts to separate religion and state.

Maintaining the status quo

The fact that most of the lawmakers active in championing religious pluralism — almost all of them women — were not reelected last week has provided more reason for despair among Jewish progressives. That list includes Merav Michaeli, Yael Cohen Paran, Ksenia Svetlova and Revital Swid (all from the old Zionist Union alliance), Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), and Rachel Azaria and Merav Ben Ari (both from Kulanu).

Knafo takes solace in the fact that the next Likud delegation will include several names who are considered liberal on matters of religion and state. These include Gideon Sa’ar, the former education minister who just completed a short year hiatus from politics, and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. “I’m not saying that they will be able to promote major change, but with people like that in the ruling party, the Haredi lawmakers won’t be able to go that wild,” Knafo says.

He doesn’t believe the ultra-Orthodox parties will exploit their numerical clout to push through new legislation that further curtails religious freedom. “I think they will focus instead on making sure that existing legislation, like the law that forces shops to stay closed on Shabbat, is enforced. After all, the situation is so comfortable for them right now that they really only have to make sure it stays as is.”

Kahol Lavan, which is likely to become the main opposition party, will focus considerable energy on religion-and-state matters, Knafo predicts, because that is an area where it can best distinguish itself from Likud and its religious partners.

“On security and peace, there aren’t many differences,” he notes, “and neither are there big differences between them on economic matters — so it makes sense that this is where they will try to make themselves felt as an opposition force.”

Before the election, Gantz’s party had published a very liberal platform on matters of religion and state, in which it promised to recognize some form of civil marriage in Israel; repeal the law that prohibits most stores from opening on Shabbat; allow cities to decide on their own whether to run buses on Shabbat; and legalize surrogacy for all gay couples and provide them with equal rights in adopting children. On more than one occasion, Gantz also promised to revive the suspended Western Wall deal.

How successful Kahol Lavan will be in advancing this agenda from the opposition benches will depend to a large extent on just one politician, says Hiddush President Rabbi Uri Regev, whose organization promotes religious freedom in Israel.

Eli Ben Dahan, right, next to Rabbi Eyal Greiner at a Torah-learning event in Jerusalem, December 2018.
גדעון שרון

That politician is Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing but secular Yisrael Beiteinu. “Lieberman is the wild card,” says Regev. “He says he is just as resolved as the ultra-Orthodox parties in terms of his red lines, and we’ll have to see if that’s really the case.”

Lieberman, whose main constituents are Russian-speaking immigrants — the overwhelming majority of whom are not religious, with many of them not even considered Jewish by religious law — is likely to clash with the ultra-Orthodox parties on two main issues: His resolve to draft more young Haredi men into the army; and his promise to provide more public transportation and commerce on Shabbat. “These are issues his supporters are adamant about,” notes Regev.

Lieberman will control five seats in the next Knesset. If Netanyahu wishes to form a narrow right-wing, religious coalition, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader’s support will be critical for obtaining a majority.

But of even greater consequence for the future of religious freedom in Israel, Regev believes, is the fate of the so-called “override clause.” Supported by many members of the outgoing coalition, this clause would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the Supreme Court.

Among those seen as Netanyahu’s natural partners in a right-wing, religious coalition, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu is thus far the only party to express strong reservations about such a move.

“If this legislation is passed,” warns Regev, “it will have much more far-reaching consequences on the ability of the Supreme Court to render remedies to those hurt by discrimination and coercive religious policies.”

‘Scapegoating’

While it has yet to be seen how much parties like Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu will stick to their principles during coalition negotiations, says Regev, certain development on the religion-and-state front are already givens.

“On issues such as the Western Wall deal, Netanyahu has already made his position clear — that he’s not going to lose his government over something like this — and that won’t change. What else is pretty clear is that there’s no chance Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel will be recognized. In fact, now it’s even becoming doubtful that Modern Orthodox conversions will be recognized.”

Although the Reform movement does not have a big following in Israel, it was repeatedly targeted in campaign ads in recent months put out by groups associated by religious and right-wing parties.

Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman at the launch of his party's 2019 election campaign, January 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Jay Ruderman, head of a family foundation that tries to educate Israelis about the Jewish-American community, warns that, left unaddressed, such “scapegoating” could boomerang against Israel.

“We are talking about the basic issue of respect — and it will have geopolitical implications,” he says. “American Jews still do the heavy lifting in terms of support for Israel, and the vast majority of them are not Orthodox. People need to understand that this disrespect, if it continues, could have an impact on Israel’s security.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group, warns that further setbacks to religious pluralism and freedom in Israel will serve to alienate American Jews even more.

“Most American Jews are engaged in non-Orthodox movements, and even a lot of American Orthodox Jews support religious pluralism. So, if Israel become essentially an Orthodox theocracy, that is also going to be highly problematic for American Jews,” she says.

All these dark predictions are based on the assumption that Netanyahu will prefer to form a right-wing, religious government. But should he opt instead for a national unity government with Kahol Lavan that excludes the religious parties, says Knafo, it could pave the wave for significant advancements in religious pluralism and freedom.

“If and when [President] Donald Trump publishes his peace plan, that may very well be what happens,” he says.