The party posing the biggest threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming election, Kahol Lavan, has published an unusually liberal platform on matters of religion and state.
If it forms the next government, the alliance between Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid and former army chief Benny Gantz's Hosen L'Yisrael, has promised to recognize some form of civil marriage in Israel; to repeal the law that prohibits most stores from operating on Shabbat; to allow cities to decide whether to run buses on the Sabbath; and to legalize surrogacy for all gay couples and provide them with equal rights in adopting children.
And yet, after non-Orthodox Jews were targeted in acts of violence at the Western Wall Friday morning, Kahol Lavan issued no response.
This week, Haaretz sat down with the team responsible for the party’s religion and state platform to find out more about its positions.
Asked about the party’s lack of response to the weekend clashes at the Kotel, Michael Biton said: “This party wasn’t established to issue responses but rather to change reality, and the way we intend to do that is by implementing the Western Wall deal that was suspended by this government” (referring to the 2016 government-approved deal that would have created a new and expanded space for egalitarian prayers at the Jewish holy site, which Netanyahu froze after pressure from ultra-Orthodox partners in the governing coalition).
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“It was a very good agreement that reflected consensus among large swaths of the Jewish people, and once it is implemented the problem will be solved,” added Biton, a former mayor of the Negev town of Yeruham.
Lawmaker Elazar Stern, who represented Yesh Atid in the outgoing Knesset, added: “Our position is that the non-Orthodox movements made far greater concessions than the Orthodox in reaching this deal, and we truly appreciate that. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to issue a statement every month when there are clashes at the Western Wall. We have one response, and that is that we will fight to make sure the Western Wall deal is implemented.”
A key factor behind the collapse of the Western Wall deal was a clause that would have created a special statutory body responsible for administering the new egalitarian space, which would have included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. Effectively, this would have granted the non-Orthodox movements official recognition at the Jewish holy site, and for that reason this clause held key significance for them.
Kahol Lavan’s religion and state platform was written by Biton, Stern and Chili Tropper, a social activist and educator who served as adviser to former Education Minister Shay Piron. All three come from religious backgrounds and wear kippot, but are considered to be on the liberal edge of Orthodoxy. Biton and Tropper are former members of Labor; at one point, the popular Yeruham mayor was considered a rising star in the party. Both were recruited to Kahol Lavan by Gantz.
Would a government headed by Gantz implement all aspects of the Kotel deal, including granting official status to the non-Orthodox movements at the Western Wall? “Absolutely,” said Stern.
Kahol Lavan is leading in the polls, but its edge over Netanyahu’s Likud has narrowed over the past week. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox parties have already announced they will not join any government headed by it because of its connection to Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid who originally built his party on an anti-religious platform. The religion and state advisers said, however, they were not ruling out a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties.
“It’s not clear at all that they’re not going to join us,” said Tropper. “They’re not our enemies, and our platform calls for integrating them into all aspects of society.”
But the advisers refused to answer whether the party would be willing to back out of its commitment to the Western Wall deal in exchange for support from the ultra-Orthodox parties in forming a coalition, saying the question was overly hypothetical.
“What’s important,” said Biton, “is that we have the courage to say that we want a partnership with the Haredi parties, and at the same time include in our platform the Kotel deal, some form of civil marriage and more options for public transportation on Shabbat. Perhaps this will distance the ultra-Orthodox from us, but it is not our intention to issue a divorce to any segment of society. As far as we are concerned, they are our partners.”
Although the Kahol Lavan platform supports some form of civil marriage, it is not in favor of religious marriages performed by rabbis not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. That would include not only Reform and Conservative rabbis but also liberal Orthodox rabbis known for their criticism of the rigidly Orthodox institution that controls marriage and divorce in Israel.
Neither does the platform call for recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, even though it says the party will act to create a friendlier national conversion system.
Asked about their reluctance to grant full and equal status to the non-Orthodox movements in matters of marriage and conversion, Tropper said: “I’m very sympathetic to any disappointment they may have, but you know how many complaints I get from Orthodox people saying we’ve gone way too far in our platform in the other direction? What’s important is we are the first major party with the potential to form a government that has spoken in such clear-cut language about matters of religion and state. Until now, it has always been the niche parties on the fringes that did that and could afford to do that. It had always been a hot potato issue that no big party wanted to touch.”
Last June, the government was presented with a new plan for resolving the ongoing controversy on conversions — a major cause of friction between Israel and Jewish communities abroad. The plan was drafted, at Netanyahu’s request, by Moshe Nissim, a veteran Likud politician who served as both finance minister and justice minister in previous governments.
Nissim’s plan was to set up a new public institution, independent of the Rabbinate, to be in charge of all conversions performed in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox didn’t like the idea because it meant that the Rabbinate, which they control, would lose its power. The non-Orthodox movements didn’t like it because under Nissim’s proposal, the new authority would only recognize and perform Orthodox conversions. The recommendations have not even been discussed by the government.
How does Kahol Lavan see the Nissim plan? “I’m in favor with small adjustments,” said Tropper. “In principle, it’s the right direction.”
Stern went even further. “I would totally sign on,” he said.