From the Kotel to Chametz, How Religious Fights Upended Israel’s Government

Issues of religion and state have been the Achilles heel of Israel's 'change government' since its formation. Here is a list of religious controversies that have pitted Bennett's government against itself in the last 10 months

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Matzo. If the government falls over chametz in hospitals, it won't be all that surprising.
Matzo. If the government falls over chametz in hospitals, it won't be all that surprising.Credit: Moti Milrod
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

If Israel’s government eventually collapses over a fight about chametz – leavened bread products on Passover – it wouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, issues of religion and state have been the coalition’s Achilles heel since its formation 10 months ago.

Given the unusual composition of the governing coalition – with religious Islamist and Jewish parties on one end and proudly secularist parties committed to religious freedom on the other – this was likely inevitable.

Unlike previous governments, the current coalition includes no representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties, with Yamina – the party headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – drawing most of its support from the more liberal Orthodox community in Israel. There had been high hopes, therefore, that the new government – unbeholden, for a change, to the ultra-Orthodox community – would have an easy time passing religious reforms.

But the parties involved in drafting the coalition agreement clearly understood otherwise. That explains why they refrained from any commitment among the coalition partners to religious reform, except in two specific areas: kashrut and conversion. Any other changes in the religious status quo, the coalition agreement stipulated, would require across-the-board consensus.

After overcoming various obstacles, the government was eventually able to legislate the kashrut reform, which effectively broke the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on kashrut certification in Israel. It was arguably the government’s biggest achievement on this front. On other issues of religion and state, however, it was not as lucky, with most initiatives stalled or stuck because of divisions within the coalition.

Here, then, is a list of the religious controversies that have pitted this government against itself over the past 10 months, starting with the one most likely to bring it down.

Chametz checks in hospitals

The trigger for Tuesday’s dramatic resignation of Idit Silman, chairwoman of the coalition and a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, was the controversy surrounding the right of security guards at hospitals to inspect visitors’ bags for food that is not kosher for Passover during the holiday.

For the sake of accuracy, this ongoing controversy was already settled two years ago, when the High Court of Justice ruled that hospitals are not authorized to ban chametz from their premises during Passover. Israel’s Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing and secularist Meretz party, sent out a letter to hospitals a few weeks ago, ahead of the Pesach holiday, just to remind them of the court ruling. That became Silman’s alibi for leaving the coalition. With her departure, Bennett’s government has lost its majority in the Knesset.

Silman, left, and Horowitz, center, in February.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

Conversion reform

Initiated by Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (also of the Yamina party), the conversion reform aspired to make the process of becoming a Jew in Israel easier and friendlier. The idea was to break the monopoly of the Rabbinate and authorize municipal rabbis to perform conversions as well. There was nothing radical about this reform, as it did not include recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions. It was simply meant to offer those undergoing Orthodox conversions more options. The Rabbinate was dead set against the reform, and so too was one of Kahana’s fellow Yamina lawmakers. The reform has already passed the first phase of legislation, with full Knesset approval still pending. With the government having lost its majority in the Knesset, full approval no longer seems likely.

Public transportation on Shabbat

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who heads the Labor party, had big plans to expand the use of private buses on Shabbat and even allow for other modes of public transportation on the Jewish day of rest. Little has come of these plans, mainly because of opposition from religious members of the coalition. Today, various cities in Israel, like Tel Aviv, operate their own buses for residents on Shabbat. These buses are free of charge because the law does not allow their operators to accept money on Shabbat. Among other initiatives, Michaeli has proposed new regulations that would allow private bus companies to charge for their services on Shabbat. That initiative was effectively shot down. So, too, were her proposals to allow the Haifa cable car and the Tel Aviv light rail, which has yet to open, to operate on Shabbat.

Western Wall deal

Providing the Reform and Conservative movements with a proper prayer space and recognized status at the Western Wall had been considered to be low-hanging fruit for this government. After all, without the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition to stand in the way, there seemed no reason not to move ahead with the deal. It soon emerged, however, that Kahana was not a big fan. Neither were several other religious members of the coalition, who warned that the deal could offer the opposition an issue to rally behind, and could lead to the government’s undoing. The deal remains where it was 10 months ago when the government was formed: in a state of deep freeze.

Members of Women of the Wall protesting the lack of egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

Civil marriage

Just a few months ago, a deal that would have enabled a form of civil marriage in Israel seemed close at hand, after a rather unusual agreement was reached between various factions. The deal would have allowed Israeli couples to hold civil marriages at foreign consulates around the country, circumventing the need to travel abroad for such ceremonies. Sharren Haskel, a member of the secular-rightist New Hope party within the coalition, was the driving force behind the initiative. She got Kahana to agree to the deal on one condition: that eligibility for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return be dramatically limited, so as to prevent the spread of intermarriage in the country.

Under the Law of Return, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. But only a child born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish under religious law, or halakha. The Rabbinate will not marry immigrants who are not Jewish under halakhic law. In recent years, about a third of the immigrants coming to Israel are not considered to be Jewish under religious law and, therefore, cannot marry in the country. While Russia and Ukraine have been the largest sources of immigrants to Israel in recent decades, the majority of immigrants from those countries in recent years are not considered Jewish according to halakha.

Kahana proposed eliminating the so-called “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, so that only individuals with at least one Jewish parent would be eligible for aliyah. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party draws heavily on support from Russian-speaking immigrants, threatened to leave the government if the amendment passed. This brought a quick end to any further discussion of civil marriage in Israel.

Tani Frank, director of the Judaism and State Policy Center at the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, notes that this would not be the first time an Israeli government was brought down by religious controversies.

In 1976, the national religious party, then known as the Mafdal (the forebearer of Bennett’s Yamina), brought down Yitzhak Rabin’s first government over a ceremony celebrating the arrival of F-15 warplanes that ran into Shabbat.

In 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government began crumbling after the ultra-Orthodox parties pulled out in protest of his decision to allow a huge part of a metal turbine, destined for the national electric corporations, to be transported across the country on Shabbat.

“All these crises, like the current one, involved transgressions being committed in the public space,” Frank says. “And that is a very sensitive issue in this country.”

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