Regev Responds

Is the cup half full or half empty?

Religion, State, and the New Government

Writing about this subject raises the known question as to what we should be looking at: the half-full cup, or the half-empty cup?

Naftali Bennett speaking at KnessetNaftali Bennett speaking at Knesset, Photo: Noam Moskowitz - Knesset Spokeswoman

On the one hand, it is clear that there is much to be happy about and hope for change in the future. It starts with what was stated right at the beginning of the Guidelines document of the new government: “The government will act to strengthen the foundations of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence”; and “It will fulfill its obligation to strengthen Jewish unity… and increase mutual understanding between the state of Israel and world Jewry”. Also, of great importance is the commitment to act “to create full social equality between men and women”. The following statement is also along the lines of necessary change: The government “sees a national goal in having all students in Israel learn core curricular studies”, since large swaths of the ultra-Orthodox education system, which encompasses hundreds of thousands of students, refuses to implement core curricular studies in their schools for boys.

In the “basic agreement” between Yesh Atid and Yamina, which all coalition agreements with the other parties are subject to, one finds additional concrete commitments towards progress in the arena of religion & state. Regarding some of these, there is even a specific, short timetable for their implementation. These include the matter of the IDF draft (and national civic service), which touches upon a pus-filled wound due to the mass exemption from equal shouldering of the security burden granted to tens of thousands of yeshiva students. There are also provisions for increasing competition in the area of kashrut certification, expanding state recognized conversions to include those performed by City Rabbis, and changes in the make-up of the electoral body that selects Chief Rabbis in a manner that would facilitate the appointment of a Zionist Chief Rabbi.

Naturally, we also commend the personnel changes in the form of ministers and chairs of Knesset committees, which are expected to herald greater openness and empathy towards religious freedom and equality. Such is the case, for instance, regarding the appointment of Nachman Shai [Labor] as Minister of Diaspora Affairs and the intended appointment of MK Gilad Kariv [Labor] to chair the Law and Constitution Committee of the Knesset. The new Finance Minister, Avigdor Liberman, whose party now also controls the Knesset Finance Committee, has repeatedly spoken about the need to change course with regard to funding the ultra-Orthodox sector, saying that members of that sector should be encouraged to more fully participate in the workforce. These worthy goals were blocked in the past by MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and his acquiescing coalition partners.

MK Gafni served for many years as the dominant chair of the Knesset Finance Committee, and he instituted (according to the description of a senior media economic commentator) “a pass-through tax”, referring to his frequent demands for adding funding and allocations to the ultra-Orthodox sector as a condition for passing through his committee requests of government agencies to approve their funding and budgetary changes. One could describe it using another phrase, which became common in a different context: “Me too!” Further, the appointment of the head of the Labor Party, Merav Michaeli, to the position of Minister of Transportation, may enable her to finally advance public transportation on Shabbat. And more.

Reviewing the individual coalition agreements reveals an impressive “shopping list” in the arena of religion & state. It includes the regulation and recognition of the status of couples who cannot marry according to the current law; LGBTQ rights; voiding the law empowering the Minister of the Interior to prevent the opening of businesses on Shabbat; public transportation on Shabbat; reinstituting the suspended agreement regarding egalitarian and women’s prayer services at the Kotel.

However, on the side of the “half-empty cup”, it is important to know that the painstaking construction of the complex coalition agreements subjected (as mentioned above) all individual agreements to the “Basic Agreement” between Yesh Atid and Yamina. It prohibits legislative initiatives sponsored by the parties that constitute the coalition and their members unless they are explicitly included the Basic Agreement and the Guidelines Document or receive the consent of “all factions of the coalition”.

The fact that promises were included on matters of religious freedom and equality in the agreements between Yesh Atid and Meretz, Labor, Blue & White, and Yisrael Beiteinu should be viewed as wishful thinking, rather than a check that one can take to the bank.

Namely: the fact that promises were included on matters of religious freedom and equality in the agreements between Yesh Atid and Meretz, Labor, Blue & White, and Yisrael Beiteinu should be viewed as wishful thinking, rather than a check that one can take to the bank. Moreover, the Basic Agreement mandated the principle of preserving the “status quo on religious matters”. This includes matters of personal status, conversion, yeshiva students, Shabbat, kashrut, Rabbinate, marriage, and divorce. The stated exception is only the few specific items outlined in the Basic Agreement described above or consent of all coalition parties.

It is possible that individual ministers may be able to advance additional matters, especially those included in the coalition agreement between Yesh Atid and their respective parties, within the scope of their ministries if legislation would not be required to advance such causes. On the other hand, there may be significant counter-pressure even in these instances to keep the “status quo”. Yesterday, the media reported the intention to establish a committee to examine issues of religion & state within the framework of the Ministry of Religious Services. That Ministry is headed by Matan Kahana of Yamina, and it is difficult to tell whether the intention behind creating such a committee is to advance change or to stifle it. Time will tell.

Furthermore, the concrete issues, for which there is commitment to promote within the framework of the "Basic Agreement" and the Guidelines document, are those that favor modern Orthodoxy, not those who want full religious freedom and pluralism (For example, the planned changes in kashrut certification and conversion). The praiseworthy commitment to ensure that "all students of Israel" are taught core curricular studies raises questions as to implementation. It is doubtful whether ultra-Orthodox educational institutions will be sanctioned economically and by other means if they do not comply, and it’s hard to see such change achieved by only using carrots and not sticks.

Also, the Enlistment Law that is planned to be passed within 60 days is more deserving of the name "Non-Enlistment Law", as we will expound upon further in the near future. The agreements include lowering the age of full exemption from enlistment (or civic national service) for yeshiva students to 21(!). In comparison, the rest of the Jewish population is subject to full compulsory service and reserve duty up to the age of 40-49 (depending on rank and form of service).

As for freedom of marriage, even in the agreements in which this is mentioned (with Labor, Meretz, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu), it is not promising a marriage option, but rather "couplehood" instead; and even that is intended only for those whose marriages are forbidden by the Chief Rabbinate, not for the general public! It is important to reiterate that the proposed changes (which are unlikely to get advanced given the counter provisions in the binding agreements] are a far cry from the principles of freedom of religion and equality, which the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Jewish population supports and hopes for.

The Guidelines Document states that "action will be taken with regard to issues of religion and state on which there is broad public agreement", but unfortunately this should probably not be taken at face value. Such “broad public agreement” exists in all areas of religious freedom and equality, as evidenced without exception by the many periodic surveys, such as the annual Hiddush Religion & State Index and those undertaken by the Israel Democracy Institute. But given the veto given to Yamina, speaking for the Zionist Orthodox minority, and the counter pressure of the ultra-Orthodox – we should not expect major progress any time soon.

In light of the above , it is obvious that the hue and cry heard from the ultra-Orthodox parties, that this is a "Reform government";” an apostasy government”; “a wicked government that will destroy all Judaism in Israel and harm all that is holy to the Jewish People” … is exaggerated, to say the least. This government will not bring full, necessary revolution in religion-state relations, but at the same time, any start in the direction of more freedom of religion and freedom from religion, as well as pluralism and gender equality, is important.

For organizations like Hiddush, there is still need to be vigilant, to continue to reach out to the public in Israel and the Diaspora, to step up legal advocacy in the courts, to exert constructive pressure on the government and specific relevant ministries and politicians. All of that will still be necessary to get Israel closer to its mission as a truly Jewish and democratic country, in the spirit of its Declaration of Independence.

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