Netanyahu’s New Coalition Whip Is No Fan of Progressive U.S. Jews

Expected appointment of David Amsalem raises concerns that a conversion bill discriminating against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel will soon become law

MK David Amsalem in 2015. “There is no one in Likud who is more hostile to the non-Orthodox movements than Amsalem,” says Yizhar Hess.
Lior Mizrahi

If American Jews needed more proof that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but written them off, they need look no further than the man he chose as his new governing coalition whip, say liberal Jewish leaders.

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In his relatively short history as an Israeli lawmaker, David Amsalem has shown tremendous disdain for U.S. Jews – particularly those affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements, they say.

“There is no one in Likud who is more hostile to the non-Orthodox movements than Amsalem,” says Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel.

Amsalem, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and one of Netanyahu’s most loyal allies, is slated to take over from David Bitan, who announced his resignation on Wednesday amid a corruption probe.

Amsalem was the mastermind of a bill submitted last year that would have outlawed practices at the Western Wall not deemed strictly Orthodox. At the time, it was seen as an attempt to override the government plan for a new and upgraded egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site. But since the government plan was suspended in late June, the so-called Kotel bill has lost its urgency.

Had it passed, the bill would have prevented women from wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries), reading from a Torah and blowing a shofar at the Western Wall. It would have also prevented men and women from holding mixed prayer services in the entire vicinity of the Kotel. That would have included the southern part, where Conservative and Reform Jews often hold services on a makeshift plaza.

The bill would also have prevented any religious practices that “offend worshippers” at the site and provided the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s rabbinical court with sole jurisdiction over it. Furthermore, those violating its restrictions would have faced heavy sanctions – six months in prison or a 10,000-shekel ($2,870) fine. 

MK David Amsalem, left, next to Interior Minister Arye Dery during a Knesset committee meeting, June 2017.
Emil Salman

Amsalem had worked with about a dozen ultra-Orthodox lawmakers when drafting the bill.

During his two and a half years in the parliament, Amsalem has served as chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee. About a month before his controversial Kotel bill was submitted, he took his committee members on a field trip to the Western Wall. The stated mission was to show them where the proposed egalitarian prayer space would be established and to point out some of the challenges ahead.

Amsalem, however, exploited the opportunity to come out publicly against the egalitarian prayer space and to attack Diaspora Jews. “With all due respect to the Americans and American Jews, they cannot be influencing what goes on here,” he said, during a committee meeting on the plan in November 2016, calling on the government to scrap it. “Let them get insulted if they want. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re not doing us any favors.“

During the debate, Amsalem also expressed great antipathy for the Reform and Conservative movements, whose Israeli representatives had been invited to attend the session. “And if they tell us we should eat pork, do we have to do that too?” he asked sarcastically.

Amsalem also blamed U.S. Jews for the violence that had erupted a week before the Western Wall visit, when a delegation of rabbis from the non-Orthodox movements led a procession carrying Torah scrolls in their arms, in defiance of the ultra-Orthodox authorities in charge of the holy site.

“Those who held the Torah scrolls in their hands are the ones who instigated the violence,” he told the committee.

In his new position as coalition whip, Amsalem will have far greater power. He will be able to influence which legislative initiatives are advanced and which are held back in the Knesset – which does not bode well for Diaspora Jews.

One bill that could soon make its way back onto the Knesset agenda is of particular concern, says ITIM Executive Director Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization advocates on behalf of converts in Israel. “The conversion bill, which was frozen for six months, is potentially explosive,” he warns.

Six months ago, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to vote on the bill, which would deny recognition of all conversions performed in Israel outside of the Orthodox-sanctioned state system. Had it been enacted into law, Jews born abroad who converted in Israel through Conservative, Reform or privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts would have been denied Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return (i.e., they would not be eligible for benefits given to all other immigrants).  

Facing a backlash from overseas Jewish leaders, Netanyahu announced a six-month suspension of the draft law, during which time an alternative would be drawn up. In August, Netanyahu appointed Moshe Nissim – a former finance and justice minister from his Likud party – with the task of working on the proposal. That six-month period ends on January 1.

Nissim waited several months before getting to work. According to sources who have met with him in recent weeks, the chances are slim he will have drafted an alternative proposal before the deadline. It’s more likely, they say, that he will request a three-month extension.

If Nissim is unable to come up with an alternative acceptable to the Conservative and Reform movements, the controversial conversion law will be back on the table. If his past record is any indication, Amsalem is likely to side with the ultra-Orthodox parties, who are anxious to push the legislation through.

“As coalition whip, Amsalem will have the power to either expedite or slow down legislation,” says Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s local advocacy arm.

“What we know about him is that he tends to resist any change in the status quo when it comes to religion and state matters,” she adds. “For us, that means we will have to be very vigilant in pushing back.”

The coalition whip traditionally plays a key role in toning down extremely controversial legislation. Such was the case with the so-called mikveh law, which was meant to prohibit non-Orthodox Jewish converts from immersing themselves in state-run ritual baths as part of their conversion process. As Hess notes, the outgoing whip Bitan was instrumental in reaching a compromise that called for building special mikvehs around the country that would serve non-Orthodox converts.

“Bitan invested a lot of time in reaching this compromise, and he was never hostile to those of us in the non-Orthodox movements,” says Hess. “The situation will be very different with Amsalem in charge.”

An adviser for Amsalem said he was unwilling to comment having not yet assumed his new position. “What I can say is that we don’t see our job as fighting Reform and Conservative Jews,” the adviser added.