Civil Marriage Unlikely, Kotel Deal for Sure: What New Israeli Gov’t Means for Religious Status Quo

With a Reform rabbi and openly gay party leader set to be in the next government, what does this mean for matters of religion and state? Not as much as you might expect

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
A female worshipper wearing a Pride-colored at the Western Wall.
A female worshipper wearing a Pride-colored at the Western Wall. Credit: Eyal Warshavsky
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

If the new rotation government headed by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett ultimately gets sworn in (still a big if), it would be the first time since 2015 that the ultra-Orthodox parties were not part of the ruling coalition. It would be the first time Israel has a prime minister who wears a yarmulke (though in the tradition of a certain type of Orthodox Jew, Bennett’s is very small). It would be the first time a Reform rabbi – Labor MK Gilad Kariv – is a member of the governing coalition (not to mention the Knesset). And it would be the first time an Islamist party (or any Arab party, for that matter) was part of the governing coalition.

How will all these firsts affect matters of religion of state in Israel under the new proposed government?

Details of the various coalition agreements signed in recent days have yet to be made public, so it’s hard to know what exactly has been promised to whom. While advocates of religious freedom and pluralism may certainly feel heartened by the more liberal composition of the new government, they should probably not get their hopes up too high.

Civil marriage will not be legalized in Israel anytime soon, the rigidly Orthodox Chief Rabbinate is not going anywhere, and it will be a long time before public buses start operating regularly on Shabbat.

In other words, the religious status quo is likely to continue even in this so-called “government of change.”

“I think we need to lower our expectations,” says Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization. “This is a government of many compromises, so to a large extent, what was will remain.”

Naftali Bennett praying at the Western Wall after he first became a lawmaker in 2013.Credit: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

Dan Feferman, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, cautions that while Bennett’s Yamina party is far more liberal than Shas or United Torah Judaism – the two ultra-Orthodox parties that enjoyed considerable clout under (outgoing?) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – it is still an Orthodox party, with all that entails.

By the same token, United Arab List, the Arab party that signed the coalition agreement, represents a deeply religious Muslim constituency that is strongly opposed to gay rights and civil marriage.

“It’s hard to imagine that there will be any major breakthroughs,” Feferman says, “especially because this government may eventually want to bring in the ultra-Orthodox parties.”

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the strongly secular Yisrael Beiteinu party that is also a member of the coalition, has said the new government will take guidance from Tzohar – an association of Modern Orthodox rabbis known to be more progressive than the Rabbinate on matters like conversions and kashrut authorization – in drafting its religious platform. Tzohar may be more progressive than the Rabbinate, but it is still an Orthodox organization.

According to details of the coalition agreement that have already been published, Lieberman will be Israel’s next finance minister, and a member of his party will chair the very powerful Knesset Finance Committee.

Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization dedicated to religious freedom and Jewish pluralism, believes the decision to hand over control of the state coffers to a secularist party, one often seen as the nemesis of the Haredim, carries potentially wide-ranging implications.

“This could spell an end to preferential budgetary treatment of the ultra-Orthodox,” he says. The Haredi community receives special government funding that allows male adults to study full-time in yeshivas rather than work, while Israel’s child allowance system is constructed in such a way as to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to have large families.

The last time the Haredi parties sat on the opposition benches, Lapid was finance minister and cut funding to their constituents. As Feferman notes, however, when they joined the next government, their allocations were renewed.

On other issues related to religion and state, here’s what can be expected of this new government (if it indeed takes shape):

Conversions

Several months ago, Israel’s High Court issued a landmark ruling allowing Jews by choice who were converted in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis to be recognized in the Population Registry as Jewish. The justices noted in their decision they were forced to rule on the matter because the government and the Knesset have refused to initiate legislation that would regulate conversions.

Following the ruling, the ultra-Orthodox parties promised that their first move in the next government, assuming they were part of it, would be to pass a law that gives the Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions.

“That clearly isn’t going to happen now,” says Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. But neither is there much of a chance, Keidar says, of passing a law that would authorize Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel.

A Shabbat bus organized by the Meretz party in Tel Aviv. Despite Meretz set to part of the government for the first time in decades, a regular Shabbat bus service is still unlikely. Credit: Guy Levy

Transportation on Shabbat

According to details published so far on the coalition agreements, Labor leader Merav Michaeli will be Israel’s next transportation minister. That could provide a boost to efforts aimed at introducing regular public transportation services on Shabbat, Keidar says. “Reforms of this nature that were already progressing thanks to various municipal initiatives should benefit from much broader support on the national level now,” he says.

LGBT rights

Meretz, which for the first time in 20 years will be part of a governing coalition, has long been the champion of gay rights in the Knesset. In fact, Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz was the first openly gay person to head a major political party in Israel. Even Yamina, on the other end of the political spectrum, is relatively open to advancing LGBT rights and has made efforts in recent years to reach out to the community.

Ironically, the main obstacle to furthering LGBT rights in the upcoming government is the party widely seen as evidence of its progressive orientation: the United Arab List. Its chairman, Mansour Abbas, has already said that major concessions to the LGBT community would be a deal-breaker for him.

The two main issues on the agenda of LGBT activists in Israel these days are equal rights in adoption and surrogacy. Sattath says she remains hopeful that progress can be achieved on these issues, noting: “I’m not sure how much Abbas really cares about things like this.”

Prayer at the Western Wall

Hess, who previously served as executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, says he is confident the so-called “Kotel deal” can be revived under the new government. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” he says.

The deal was meant to provide the Conservative and Reform movements with an upgraded prayer space at the Western Wall, where they could hold egalitarian services. Under the terms of the agreement, it would be equal in visibility and accessibility to the existing gender-segregated Orthodox prayer plaza. The deal, which had been approved by a previous Netanyahu government, was canceled in 2017 under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, who threatened to bolt if he implemented it.

Hess notes that Bennett, who served as Diaspora affairs minister at the time the deal was approved, had thrown his weight behind it. Sattath says that in recent meetings with heads of the parties comprising the coalition, she and her colleagues have been reassured of their intention to revive the Kotel deal. In other words, there’s nothing in its way at the moment.

Israel-Diaspora

Israel’s relationship with the global Jewish community, and especially the non-Orthodox movements, is sure to improve with a government no longer bound to the Haredi parties and much more open to the idea of Jewish pluralism.

Despite his Orthodox affiliation, Bennett, whose parents grew up in the Reform movement, was well-liked among Reform and Conservative leaders when he held the Diaspora affairs portfolio. Lapid, for his part, celebrated the bar mitzvahs of his children at Beit Daniel, the flagship synagogue of the Reform movement in Tel Aviv. Kariv, who served as executive director of the Reform movement in Israel for 12 years, is a well-known face in synagogues across North America.

As one commentator joked this week, the most rigidly Orthodox member of the new government is United Arab List leader Abbas.

“After years of being told that Israel’s true friends are evangelical Christians while they are dispensible, non-Orthodox Jews will definitely start feeling more welcome here,” Hess says. Feferman strongly agrees. “With the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing extremists like [Kahanist Itamar] Ben-Gvir out of the picture, this would be a government much more in tune with Diaspora Jewry,” he says. “So while we might not see a lot of change in substance when it comes to matters of religion and state, we will definitely see a huge change in rhetoric.”

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