In its recently concluded summer session, Israel's Knesset passed into law two controversial religious bills: one that exempts ultra-Orthodox schools from teaching core subjects, like math and English, and another that bans non-Orthodox converts from using state-run mikvehs, or ritual baths. Several other bills pertaining to Shabbat observance were submitted and discussed, though not yet passed into law.
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A report published Wednesday by the watchdog organization Jewish Pluralism Watch notes that matters of religion and state played a surprisingly prominent role in the Knesset agenda during its latest session. “We refer not only to legislation,” it says. “It was a session full of lobby meetings, discussions, comments, speeches, either thought-provoking or conflict-promoting, both inside and outside the Knesset.”
Jewish Pluralism Watch, an organization established by the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, identified in its report a group of Knesset members deserving of special mention, for good or for bad, in this regard. Here’s who made the list:
Most influential: MK Moshe Gafni, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, was hands down the biggest mover-and-shaker on matters of religious legislation in the latest parliamentary session, according to the report. Although Gafni does not officially head UTJ, for all intents and purposes, the report notes, he is the driving force behind its agenda and deserves credit for pushing through both the new mikveh law and the new exemption from core subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools.
“He uses his position intelligently, creatively and consistently in order to promote the clear agenda to which his party is committed, by exerting all the political pressure that his high-powered position gives him,” the report says. With Gafni effectively at the helm, it notes, “the party manages to promote legislation and to bring it to a conclusion, with speed and determination. It succeeds in influencing the Jewish nature of the state of Israel in an unparalleled manner.”
By contrast, the other two religious parties in the coalition – Shas and Habayit Hayehudi (the former representing ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews and the latter aligned with the settler movement) – showed very little inclination to advance religious legislation. “They almost never use their power as central parties in the coalition to exert influence in these matters,” the report says.
Biggest disappointments: Of all the members of the current governing coalition, two, at least, had a proven track record of promoting the cause of Jewish pluralism: former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Rachel Azaria, both of them members of the center-right Kulanu party and first-time Knesset members. Many progressive-minded Israelis had, therefore, counted on Oren and Azaria to serve as a counter-balance to the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
“Up to now, the MKs on whom pluralistic Jews pinned their hopes have not succeeded in preventing anti-pluralistic legislations and were sometimes even disappointing by their actions or lack thereof,” the report notes, referring to Oren and Azaria. It points out that the entire Kulanu Knesset faction supported both the mikveh law and the law exempting ultra-Orthodox schools from teaching core subjects.
Biggest surprise: An Orthodox rabbi best known for leading the fight to permit Jewish prayer at the contentious Temple Mount site, Likud member Yehudah Glick does not come to mind automatically as a natural fan of the progressive Jewish movements in Israel. But that exactly is what he has become in his first few months in office as a lawmaker. “Glick’s remarks in connection with pluralism and religious freedom surprised even his fellow party member, as well as his political opponents,” the Jewish Pluralism Watch report notes.
“MK Glick has been a unique voice in the coalition in general, and in the Likud in particular. It seems as though his conscience and his moral positions guide his political activity, as he expresses firm opposition to harmful legislations and phenomena that are, in his eyes, improper.” In particular, the report takes note of the impassioned speech Glick delivered on the Knesset floor attacking the new mikveh law, as well as his strong condemnation of those ultra-Orthodox Knesset members who walked out of a debate when members of the non-Orthodox movements showed up.
Notably absent: The nature of parliamentary politics is that it is always easier for members of the opposition to stick to their principles and vote with their hearts. After all, they are not bound by coalition agreements. Add to that the fact that center-left parties are naturally more supportive of progressive causes, and it should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of Jewish pluralism in the Knesset are members of the opposition Zionist Union, Meretz and Yesh Atid parties.
The Jewish Pluralism Watch report gives special mention to the following opposition members for their dogged efforts on behalf of religious freedom in the country: Michal Rozin, Tamar Zandberg, and Zehava Galon of Meretz; Ksenia Svetlova, Yael Cohen-Paran, Stav Shafir, Merav Michaeli and Michal Biran of the Zionist Union; and Aliza Lavie and Elazar Stern (both liberal Orthodox) of Yesh Atid. Stern is the only non-female member of the group, begging the following question: Where are all the men? Or has religious pluralism in Israel become an almost exclusively women’s issue – at least on the left?