About three-quarters of the way through his inaugural campaign speech Tuesday night, Benny Gantz delivered a surprise: He expressed his unwavering support for freedom of prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
It wasn’t that most Israelis believed the former army chief of staff was opposed to holding egalitarian services at one of Judaism’s holiest sites. It just wasn’t the sort of issue they assumed would interest him, let alone deserve special mention in his long-awaited debut address.
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In the interest of playing it safe, the man perceived as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s key challenger in the upcoming election on April 9 was deliberately vague on many issues in his maiden stump speech – most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On matters of religion and state, however, he was unusually forthcoming.
The leader of the newly formed Hosen L’Yisrael party promised to move forward with the long-suspended Western Wall deal, which would have granted full recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at the holy site and allotted them a new and improved space for mixed-prayer services. (The deal was frozen in June 2017 under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.)
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But not only that: He expressed support for certain forms of civil marriage; he promised to make more options available for public transportation on Shabbat; he vowed to fight discrimination against women and pledged to grant full rights to members of the LGBT community.
“The government under whose leadership I stand will respect the Jewish tradition of Israel and allow each person to live according to their beliefs and values,” he said, summing up his position.
Gantz’s remarks were welcomed in the obvious quarters. A statement issued by the Reform movement in Israel noted that “these are the views of a clear majority of Israeli citizens, and every party committed to the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence would be well advised to commit to them.
“We hope that after the election,” the statement added, “a government will be formed in Israel that will implement these important measures so that they don’t remain mere election slogans.”
Uri Keidar, CEO of Israel Hofsheet (aka Be Free Israel), an organization that promotes religious pluralism, said that “Gantz has taken a courageous and important step in the right direction, and we believe this is just the beginning.”
The fact that the candidate had chosen to address these issues in his inaugural campaign speech, Keidar added, “proves that they have taken center stage and that all candidates will have to do the same if they wish to earn the support of most of the public.”
It’s hard to believe it was the Israeli army, where he spent almost his entire career, that was responsible for turning Gantz into such a liberal. And indeed, as he hinted in his speech, his views on matters of religion and state were formed much earlier and clearly influenced by the community in which he was raised.
Referring to the small southern agricultural community where he grew up, the candidate said: “In Kfar Ahim we lived side by side, observant, traditional and secular people, in modesty and with love of the land and the state. These values created who I am. They are what shaped me.”
It is worth noting that since launching his political career a few months ago, Gantz has surrounded himself with individuals and advisers who happen to be active in promoting religious freedom and Jewish pluralism.
The firm running his election campaign is Ben Horin and Alexandrovitz, a strategic-media consultancy. By chance, it also represents the Reform movement in Israel, as well as its advocacy arm, the Israel Religious Action Center. The latter has been involved in numerous legal battles and campaigns over the years aimed at promoting religious freedom and pluralism in Israel.
Interestingly, the director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, is running in the Labor Party primary next month – which might explain why the statement issued by his movement praising Gantz did not include his name. This is Kariv’s third attempt to get into the Knesset.
Ben Horin and Alexandrovitz also works with Israel Hofsheet, which has been aggressively campaigning – with considerable success – to get Jewish couples in Israel to marry outside the auspices of the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate. (Such marriages are not officially recognized in Israel).
Sources familiar with the firm say Ben Horin and Alexandrovitz works with clients like these not only for the money but also out of a deep commitment to the cause of religious freedom and pluralism. That these themes made their way into Gantz’s speech, they say, is not coincidental.
Also considered to be key influences on the candidate in this regard are two members of his inner circle, both Orthodox but very progressive-minded – and, coincidentally, both former members of the Labor Party. One is Michael Biton, the former mayor of the Negev city of Yeruham, who was once seen as a rising star in Labor. The other is Chili Tropper, a social activist and educator who served as adviser to former Education Minister Shay Piron a few years ago.