Ania Bukstein is the green-eyed Israeli beauty who dazzled TV screens worldwide Sunday in the latest “Game of Thrones” episode. She is also a member of the historic immigration wave that brought more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union who transformed Israel. Among their achievements: a voting bloc of secular Russian-speakers large enough to transform Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into a kingmaker – a muscle he just flexed by maneuvering himself into the job of defense minister.
Devoted “Game of Thrones” fans know that Bukstein made her debut as Kinvara, a powerful high priestess clad in red robes with a fanatical following. Offscreen, however, the actress and singer hasn’t been a purveyor of an extreme interpretation of religion, but its victim.
In 2014, Bukstein, who came to Israel from her native Moscow when she was 8, took a break from her busy performing schedule to testify in front of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. The subject: the degrading and humiliating treatment she faced at the hands of the rabbinate when she applied for a marriage license.
Like many of her fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, she was greeted with suspicion and was soon directed to a special department to “clarify her Jewishness.” Later she was sent to a rabbinical court, where she felt as if her Jewishness was on trial. The process, she said in her testimony, ended up as a “ridiculous farce” that reflected “a deliberate policy of bullying and degradation by an outdated and unresponsive monopoly.”
Bukstein called for the “liberation of marriage and the creation a legal civil alternative.” The current state of only allowing marriage for Jews through the ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate with its stringent definition of Jewishness “doesn’t only deny us our basic rights to marriage and a family, it denies us and distances us from our Judaism,” she said.
While she was tempted to abandon the process and simply marry abroad as many Israelis do, she decided to persist because “it was important to me and my husband and because I knew if I didn’t endure this ordeal my children may have to go through it someday when they wanted to get married.”
If Bukstein and her fellow immigrants held out any hope that Lieberman, their most powerful representative, was going to consider their interest in this important issue, it fizzled with his entrance into the Netanyahu coalition government Wednesday. While Lieberman held the line for his voters’ interests on other issues, his surrender to the ultra-Orthodox domination of life-cycle events and complete opposition to any kind of reform was immediate and complete.
Lieberman was the final domino in a line of politicians to cave to the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. In the previous Netanyahu government, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, with Lieberman’s support, teamed up and made incremental progress in pushing an unwilling rabbinate toward reforming the way its operates when it came to marriage, along with conversions.
But that was then – the window of opportunity slammed shut with the collapse of the previous government. This time around, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear to all potential coalition partners that his core bloc of supporters are the ultra-Orthodox parties. Recognizing their iron grip on religious matters as well as unconditionally funding their institutions and backtracking on tougher measures regarding their military service was presented as a basic condition of joining the government.
And what of the opposition? The Haredi parties haven’t been facing much of a challenge from the opposition either. It is rare to see Lapid harshly criticize the ultra-Orthodox as he did in the past. Once he realized that their loathing for him presented an obstacle in his quest to be taken seriously as a prime ministerial prospect, he made it a point to appear religion-friendly and is photographed swathed in a prayer shawl whenever possible.
Similarly, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog has bent over backward to remain friendly with the religious establishment – pointing out at every opportunity that his grandfather was Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Like Lapid, he knows that if he ever gets the chance to build a center-left coalition, he needs the ultra-Orthodox on his side.
Lieberman was the last holdout. But now he too has capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox parties, agreeing to help roll back previous legislation and vote against any new bills on religion and state proposed in the Knesset. This even goes for bills taking positions he has advocated for years: efforts to find a way for Russian immigrants not considered Jewish by the rabbinate to get married in the country.
Given the situation, the leaders of the North American Reform and Conservative movements should note that they face an uphill battle finding political support for their “emergency mission” to lobby against changes in the plan to build a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
Given the coalition partners’ commitment to submit to the will of the ultra-Orthodox in the government, the ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to the plan will inevitably win the day. Instead of bothering to lobby politicians at all, they should invest their time and energy in legal battles – the courts seem to be the only place they can expect any victories.
As for Lieberman’s coalition deal – he scored big political points among older Russian-immigrant voters by standing firm on the issue most important to them – pensions for those who came to Israel at an older age. He made that issue a top priority after he realized in the previous election that he was less successful as a mainstream hawkish candidate challenging Netanyahu and Bennett, and his numerical power in Knesset depends heavily on his own community – Russian speakers.
But he should look to the future with caution. Younger members of that community like Bukstein – and the young activists who founded a new organization for Russian-speakers called Generation 1.5 – are surely less than thrilled at how easily Lieberman abandoned their struggle against the politically powerful rabbinical establishment – who seem as immovable in their beliefs and practices as the red priestesses and fanatical sect leaders in the fictional world of “Game of Thrones.”
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