The Jerusalem Post
Can the new government resolve some of the Jewish state’s deepest religion-and-state concerns?
Throughout former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year term as premier, matters of religion and state were almost entirely designated to the trust of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
This state of affairs even held true, to a certain extent, when those parties were not in the 33rd government of Israel of 2013 to 2015, in which Yesh Atid tried but was relatively unsuccessful in making headway on such issues.
This failure was in part due to opposition from conservative and hard-line religious-Zionist rabbis who exerted pressure on the Bayit Yehudi Party led by Naftali Bennett against far-reaching reforms, but also due to pressure exerted by the ultra-Orthodox parties on Netanyahu, which warned him not to break their political alliance by allowing serious legislative changes on religion and state issues.
The new government sworn in on Sunday faces formidable political difficulties given its razor-thin majority and the ideological disparity of its coalition partners, as well as major diplomatic and security challenges.
But despite these problems, and despite the combustible nature of religion and state issues in the Jewish state, the new government has pledged, in an appendix to the coalition agreements on a mutually agreed coalition legislative agenda, to enact four reforms on such matters, all of which will be carried out through legislation.
Indeed, very short time frames have been given to pass all four pieces of legislation, with one scheduled for approval within 30 days of the establishment of the government, and the others within 60 or 90 days, indicating a real, if not legally binding, commitment to these issues.
Specifically, the appendix lays out reforms to decentralize the kashrut supervision market; decentralize conversion; change the electoral body for selecting chief rabbis; and changing the composition of the committee for selecting Rabbinical Court judges.
The legislation on kashrut would permit any municipal rabbinate or religious council to expand its kashrut supervision operations beyond its municipal boundaries, allowing it to hire kashrut supervisors and inspectors around the country and oversee kashrut in any restaurant or food business that requests its services, from Eilat to Katzrin.
The idea is to create competition among municipal rabbinates for the custom of food businesses, in order to improve kashrut supervision services which are frequently panned by businesses themselves as well as state reports, and have also suffered from severe corruption.
The legislation on conversion would allow municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions, thereby decentralizing authority over conversion from the control of the Chief Rabbinate and allow liberally inclined municipal chief rabbis, all of whom are Orthodox, to implement policies such as the conversion of minors, and to utilize more moderate criteria for conversion in general.
A third piece of legislation would change the makeup of the electoral body that elects chief rabbis, with the specific goal of electing “a Zionist chief rabbi” – that is, not ultra-Orthodox ones like the two current incumbents.
Finally, the appendix on legislation stipulates the passage of a bill that would guarantee at least two spots on the Selection Committee for Rabbinical Judges for women, with the goal of giving women greater influence over the selection of rabbinical judges, who have great impact on the lives of women in Israel, even though women themselves are barred from being rabbinical judges.
Aside from these four issues, there are several other matters of religion and state that are lurking in the background and that will need to be addressed, or ignored.
One of those is the government’s Western Wall resolution of 2016 which determined to create a state-recognized space for non-Orthodox prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall, but which was suspended indefinitely by the same government in 2017 following ultra-Orthodox resistance to the plan, after initially consenting to it.
Another issue will be providing for civil marriage, or civil unions, which is an important concern for Yisrael Beytenu, while permitting public transport on Shabbat is an additional topic which the left-wing and liberal parties of the coalition will seek to advance.
Promoting the study of core curriculum topics, such as maths, science and English, in ultra-Orthodox schools is another important issue for Yisrael Beytenu which is stipulated in its coalition agreement with Yesh Atid.
Tani Frank, head of the religion and state department of the religious-Zionist Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah lobbying group, argues that decentralizing the Chief Rabbinate’s services, such as conversion and kashrut, is key to improving their quality.
He says the monopoly on one hand and the centralized authority on the other, of the Chief Rabbinate over much of religious life in Israel is a “systemic failure” which lends itself to abuse of power and has allowed the body to believe it can act without restraint.
THE QUESTION arises, however, as to whether the legislation that the new coalition has stated it wishes to advance can actually be passed.
Perhaps the most severe political problem the current government suffers from is its bare-minimum majority, which will make its life hellish in every aspect of its parliamentary work, be it in committees, passing legislation or merely surviving votes of no confidence.
The prime minister is therefore eager to draft in parties from the opposition to his already unwieldy coalition, but his options appear limited to the ultra-Orthodox parties, although the chances of such a defection look very slim at least in the short term.
Nevertheless, concern for antagonizing Shas and UTJ may mitigate against the passage of the proposed reforms, in the hope that delaying or watering them down could leave the way open for them to join the government in the future.
Additionally, conservative religious elements in the coalition such as Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who was formerly the senior adviser to the highly conservative Bayit Yehudi leader Rafi Peretz, could create problems in passing such legislation.
And senior New Hope figure and Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin is close to hard-line elements in the religious-Zionist sector who fervently oppose any diminution of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
When every single MK in the coalition is needed to pass a bill, this becomes a significant problem.
Frank expresses optimism, however, that the
proposed legislation can be successfully passed into law.
He notes that Yamina is mostly denuded of rabbinic influence following the split with the Religious Zionist Party, and that the new religious services minister, Matan Kahana, is more moderate than former deputy religious services minister Eli Ben-Dahan, who ran the ministry between 2013 and 2015 but whose roots and influences lie in the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community.
Frank opined that many of the religious-Zionist voters who voted for Yamina are religiously moderate and see the proposed reforms as necessary and desirable to overhaul a religious establishment that is no longer in tune with the needs and opinions of much of the religious-Zionist community.
“Yamina will need to show its voters that it is actually acting on these issues,” said Frank.
Shahar Ilan, an expert on religion and state issues and a columnist for Calcalist, agrees that the proposed reforms would be advantageous to religious life in Israel, but says that the government must be very careful in how it proceeds.
For Ilan, a former deputy director of the Hiddush religious pluralism organization, the combustible nature of religion and state concerns, especially when put into a legislative format, means that great caution should be exercised over this agenda so as not to blow up the entire government.
Although Ilan sees some of these issues as critical to the health of the country, such as core curriculum studies for ultra-Orthodox pupils, he says he is more concerned about the damage to the rule of law and democracy that could occur were the government to fall and
Netanyahu to return to power.
“Netanyahu already proved he is ready to harm and burn every gatekeeper of democracy and the rule of law in order to influence and stop his trial, so it is critical he does not return to power,” said Ilan.
As such, Ilan said, changes beyond those spelled out in the coalition agreements should, if they are to be advanced, be carried out by administrative changes to government regulations instead of legislation.
Passing laws in the Knesset draws attention, invokes the ire of the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties, and creates political pressure and problems.
So instead of pursuing legislation on civil unions as sought by Yisrael Beytenu, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked could simply approve the registration of civil marriages conducted online and remotely by the US state of Utah.
This would resolve the highly problematic situation in which tens of thousands of Israelis cannot marry in their own country, owing to the monopoly over marriage held by the established religious institutions – the Chief Rabbinate for Jews – while at the same time avoiding a massive parliamentary showdown and putting wavering MKs under pressure.
The Western Wall agreement is also procedurally easy to resolve, requiring a simple vote in the cabinet, although doing so would certainly draw ire from the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Changes have been proposed to the language of the initial resolution which would obscure, but not alter, the fact that representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements would be on the site’s administrative council, and this might ease the passage of this step.
Regulations in the Transportation Ministry could be changed to allow for greater numbers of minibus taxis to operate on Shabbat, circumventing the need for legislation on the issue, says Ilan.
And pressuring ultra-Orthodox municipal councils, through carrots and sticks, to allow the establishment of state ultra-Orthodox schools in their jurisdictions instead of threatening all ultra-Orthodox schools with funding cuts would prevent a huge confrontation with the haredi community and ward off internal coalition opposition from elements close to UTJ and Shas in New Hope and Yamina.
Ilan says that the reforms over kashrut, conversion and how the next chief rabbis are chosen are largely internal religious battles, which the government could contain and withstand.
But sweeping and dramatic changes to highly sensitive and symbolic issues such as civil marriage, public transport on Shabbat and ultra-Orthodox education should be put aside for another day.
OVER THE course of the last 12 years, conflicts in the Jewish state over religious matters have become one of the most bitterly divisive schisms in Israeli society, in which concerns for national and religious identity have clashed with demands for pluralism and freedom from religious coercion.
The government does indeed have a frightening array of challenges before it, and at the same time faces huge political obstacles in advancing any agenda it might be able to agree upon.
But problems with the control over religious life have persisted and festered for too long in the Jewish state, and a failure to redress some of those issues could accelerate the erosion of trust in religious institutions and deepen societal schisms.