The Radicalization of Netanyahu’s anti-LGBTQ Ally

Noam chairman Avi Maoz’s transformation from young idealist to religious, ultraconservative politician surprised many who knew him. This is the story of the man set to wield a great deal of power

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Avi Maoz
Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Noam spokesman's office/AP; Design: Masha Zur Glozman
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

In the late 1970s, an emotional Avi Maoz stood on the lawn of his kibbutz and got married. He was an idealistic young man, part of the group that founded the settler kibbutz Migdal Oz in the West Bank. The wedding of Maoz and his now-wife, Galit, was presided over by the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a peace activist and poet who opposed the occupation and espoused a binational state.

Someone who lived in Migdal Oz at the time says that Maoz and the moderate Froman were close, that they worked together. Decades later, Maoz became an adherent of the doctrine of Rabb Zvi Thau, the head of the conservative, radical Har Hamor yeshiva whose opinions were light years away from those of the humanist Froman.

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Individuals who spoke with Haaretz this week struggled to explain his radicalization. Maoz is now chairman of the Noam party, with whom Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement that would grant Maoz a great deal of power.

According to the agreement, Maoz is to be appointed deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and will head a new authority for “national Jewish identity” within the PMO. In addition, Maoz is slated to be in charge of Nativ, the office that evaluates the right of people from former Soviet countries to immigrate.

Avi Maoz wears a face mask at the Knesset, in 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

This would enable him to determine that the grandchildren of Jews and those who have undergone non-Orthodox conversions are not entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

Maoz lives in East Jerusalem, in the predominately Arab neighborhood of Silwan, known as Ir David among some Jewish Israelis. He was born Avi Fischheimer into a family that he once described as “an ordinary Hapoel Mizrachi” – a religious Zionist labor party – “family.” He grew up in Haifa’s Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood , attended a religious high school and enlisted in the Nahal Brigade. Following his release from the military, he joined a group that established Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion.

‘With Rabbi Thau, there is a sort of conspiratorial mindset according to which the Western world is constantly trying to penetrate the Jewish world and change it.’

Froman’s wife, Hadassah, who met Maoz in Migdal Oz, says he “was the leading member of Migdal Oz. He was very idealistic, with an open heart and a great deal of inner light. We had a very close connection. He was very enthusiastic about Menachem’s ideas – creating special assemblies, putting gatherings on the agenda – Maoz was truly his partner. That was a very lovely time.”

Later, she says, there was a split. “When we further established the settlement movement, Menachem viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in sharper, more defined terms; at the beginning, he wasn’t like that,” Froman says.

Protesters demonstrate in front of the Knesset against Benjamin Netanyahu and Avi Maoz, following the previous round of election in 2021, which saw Maoz become the sole representative of the Noam party in the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“He understood that what we had to do was to go with them and not against them. And the further apart the left and the right grew, the more intense the rift became, and an internal polarization within the settler community developed. By the time the rift became stronger, we were no longer in Migdal Oz. I can’t say what happened to Maoz. He went to the extreme.”

One person who lived at Migdal Oz when Maoz was there says that the roots of his later radicalization were apparent. “I cannot explain the difference between his opinions then and what we are hearing now,” he says.

Maoz was “very inconspicuous, and certainly not a radical person.” He says Maoz “went to study at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and at some point became a follower of Rabbi Thau.”

Another person who lived in Migdal Oz describes Maoz in those years as “a young and idealistic kibbutznik.”

“Rabbi Menachem Froman, of blessed memory, married us,” Maoz said, referring to that period of time, in a 2001 interview. “We were very close. He brought me into the world of Torah study. Until then, I was OK, you could say. I attended a religious high school, not even a yeshiva. Meeting him opened up a window for me, and I was filled with an immense passion to study Torah. After our first child was born, we decided that we would move to Jerusalem and that I would start to learn at Mercaz Harav.”

Avi Maoz, this week. During those years, Maoz joined the staff of My Brother’s Keeper, an organization that worked for the release of Natan Sharansky from Soviet prison.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

During the 1980s, Maoz studied at the yeshiva, where Thau taught. Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of a book about ultra-Orthodox religious Zionists, describes the radicalization that has taken over the yeshiva and its students.

“Rabbi Thau spoke about how everything we do should be done in a state of purity, and that we need a special rigorousness that extends beyond halakha,” he says. The aspiration is to achieve purity “in terms of moral attributes, humility, and the value of family.

"With Rabbi Thau, there is a sort of conspiratorial mindset according to which the Western world is constantly trying to penetrate the Jewish world and change it. There is always the concept of a threat – both from the purist side, and also out of a sense that they are facing a demonic threat.”

During those years, Maoz joined the staff of My Brother’s Keeper, an organization that worked for the release of Natan Sharansky from Soviet prison. Sharansky says Maoz helped him during the last two years of his mission to be freed, and complimented him on his accomplishment.

“During the entire nine years when my wife Avital struggled on my behalf, she was accompanied by people who assisted with organizing meetings and strategy,” he says.

“In the last two years of the struggle, it was Maoz. Afterward, I was told that he was the most professional and most exacting person – strategy, meetings, ideas, liaising between Jewish organizations and the U.S. State Department, with various human rights organizations. Maoz was the most clever person there.”

In the early 1990s, Maoz was also active in the movement demanding that the Golan Heights not be returned to Syria. Uri Heitner, one of the leaders of that movement, says he remembers the group Maoz belonged to, which supported the movement.

Rabbi Zvi Thau (Right) in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“They were a group that had previously been active members of the Sharansky staff,” he recalls. “Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman was its leader. ... They had a very state-oriented attitude, one of building a connection to the nation. They connected to our messages. This was not a place from which I would expect a homophobic party to emerge. A radicalization of that entire group has taken place in the past few years.”

After Sharansky was released from Soviet prison, Maoz continued to accompany him on his political path in Israel. For a while, he served as director general of the political party founded by Sharansky, Yisrael B’Aliyah, and when Sharansky was appointed interior minister in 1999, he selected Maoz as director general of the ministry.

Sharansky says that during Maoz’ term as director of the Interior Ministry, “Avi was involved in all of the issues, except for the Population Authority. When it came to questions of religion and state, from the very start we decided that because we had divergent opinions, we would not debate them. The issue of Reform conversions was very important for me, and Avi said from the start that he wasn’t going to deal with it at all because we had different opinions. The LGBTQ issue didn’t even exist at the time.”

Subsequently, Sharansky was appointed housing minister, bringing Maoz with him, and making him director general of the ministry. In 2003, when Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party was appointed housing minister, he kept Maoz as director general. Maoz remained in the post until 2004, when he resigned after the government adopted the proposal to disengage from Gaza.

People who worked around Maoz when he was serving as director general of both ministries describe a serious, professional director general who did not make a very significant impression. One woman who worked with Maoz at the time describes him as “a friendly person, super practical and professional”; someone who was a high-ranking official in one of the ministries adds that “what is happening now is very surprising.”

One source who worked in one of the government ministries during this period says that anyone who knew Maoz back then used to joke that in the last few days of his term as director general of the Housing Ministry, he granted so many construction permits that if he had acted similarly previously, Israel would have no housing shortage.

Ariel Sharon (Left) shakes hands with Natan Sharansky upon Sharansky's arrival in Israel.Credit: Nati Hernik/GPO

About a year ago, Maoz told a Knesset committee that when he completed his term as director general of the Housing Ministry, he was interrogated by the country’s fraud investigation body because he had assisted illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Later, Maoz worked in the private sector. In 2014, he was appointed CEO of Givot Olam Oil Exploration. The company’s website states that it was founded by a Russian-born geophysicist and that in his prospecting for oil, the founder relied upon (in addition to geological and seismic data) his interpretation of a Torah portion in the Book of Deuteronomy.

In 2019, Maoz established Noam, a party defined by religious conservatism, anti-liberalism and opposition to LGBTQ rights. The party’s spiritual father is Thau. Two police complaints were recently submitted against Thau accusing him of sexual assault, for incidents that mostly took place over 30 years ago.

Since the founding of Noam in 2019, Maoz has made a wide range of radical statements. He has demanded that the egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall be shut down; claimed the military was “drafting girls into combat units under pressure from the High Court of Justice”; referred to LGBTQ families as “other families” that constitute a threat to Israeli society; insisted that the office of adviser on gender affairs to the military chief of staff be closed; and calling for “sanity be restored to” the military.

He has promoted bills that would obligate anyone filing out official government forms to enter the names of their father and mother; grant rabbinical courts authority to rule on civil matters; anchor in law the Israel Defense Forces General Staff’s order on the ban on bringing hametz into bases during Passover; and the regulate definition of the term “Jewish” in the population registry on the basis of halakha rather than on the basis of the Law of Return.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avi Maoz in coalition talks, last month.

The newspaper Maariv once ran a piece about Maoz’ term as director general of the Housing Ministry under the headline “The bulldozer’s bulldozer,” which said that “he is considered a director general who makes things happen, a bulldozer, just like [Ariel Sharon] likes.”

The article continued: “At the Housing Ministry there was one official who this week called him ‘the father of the ma’ahazim [unauthorized outposts],’ someone whose contribution to Judea and Samaria is no less substantial that that of” settler leader Ze’ev Hever.

The article said that since leaving the Housing Ministry, Maoz “has dedicated most of his time to engaging in religious studies at the Har Hamor yeshiva in Kiryat Hayovel in Jerusalem.” The article’s conclusion states that “his inner circle promises that if political circumstances change, he will once again find himself at the center of the action, in his own way.”

This promise found its way into the Noam caucus meeting that Maoz convened this week in the Knesset; given the fact that Noam is a one-person caucus, it was attended mainly by journalists.

After confirming that he’d signed an appendix to the coalition agreement with Likud and noting that he was aware of the feelings that this had provoked, he declared that “the people of Israel” had nothing to worry about. “I came to serve the State of Israel and all its residents, based on my faith and my opinions,” he assured people. For broad sections of Israeli society, the fulfillment of the purported assurance is only heightening the anxiety.

Liza Rozovsky contributed to this article.

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