Amichai Chikli, son of a Conservative rabbi, named Diaspora affairs minister

Though the Likud lawmaker doesn’t identify with the progressive denomination, he has deep ties to it; as founder of a pre-army program, he’s connected to a variety of Jewish groups

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

MK Amichai Chikli at a Knesset House Committee meeting on the Yamina party's request to declare him a 'defector,' on April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Amichai Chikli at a Knesset House Committee meeting on the Yamina party's request to declare him a 'defector,' on April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud lawmaker Amichai Chikli was named the next Diaspora affairs minister on Wednesday night, giving him a modest budget but great symbolic significance as the incoming government prepares to advance policies that could strain ties between Israel and world Jewry, particularly the American Jewish community.

In addition to his position as Diaspora affairs minister, Chikli was also named minister for social equality, another small-budget office.

Chikli, who rose to prominence by voting against his former party, Yamina, in the previous Knesset and then jumping ship to the Likud party, was in many ways an obvious choice for the position of Diaspora affairs minister. The son of a Conservative rabbi, Chikli has deep ties to the progressive Jewish movement — though he pointedly refuses to publicly affiliate himself with it — and also founded a well-regarded pre-army program, or mechina, which helped him develop connections with a wide variety of Jewish groups in Israel and around the world.

“I define myself as a Jew, without any additional [descriptors],” he said last year about his connection to the Conservative movement.

Chikli, 41, was born in Jerusalem to Camille Chikli and Rabbi Eitan Chikli, who was ordained by the Conservative Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem and led the religious pluralist TALI school network, and who today serves as president of the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico City.

When he was a child, Chikli’s family lived in Kibbutz Hanaton, the first and only kibbutz founded by the Masorti Movement, the Israeli equivalent of the US Conservative movement, and Chikli was active in the Masorti Movement’s Noam youth group as a teenager.

Chikli performed his military service in the Golani Infantry Brigade, serving as an officer. After his release from the Israel Defense Forces, he founded the Tavor mechina, a gap year program for Israeli teenagers that is meant to prepare them for military service.

He became involved in national politics in 2019, when he placed ninth on the New Right party list. When the party failed to cross the threshold in that election, Chikli returned to manage his gap-year program and sat out the next two rounds of elections, but he returned to the newly formed Yamina party, led by Naftali Bennett, for the March 2021 election.

Chikli staunchly opposed Bennett’s decision to form a unity coalition with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, voting against the formation of the government and joining the opposition in the Knesset, eventually leading him to be declared a “defector,” which should have prevented him from running in the most recent elections. However, the High Court of Justice eventually ruled that Chikli could run on the Likud slate even though he technically should not have been allowed to.

Chikli lives on Kibbutz Hanaton in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel. Despite its Conservative roots, Hanaton is not officially part of the Masorti Movement today and maintains a pluralistic Jewish community, with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular members.

Though Chikli does not identify with the Conservative movement, he has said that he occasionally goes to Hanaton’s Conservative synagogue for prayers.

At the same time, Chikli has spoken out fiercely against the Reform movement, specifically the Reform movement in Israel, which is generally more politically active than its American counterpart, particularly through its Religion Action Committee.

“[The Reform movement in Israel is] going back to their roots in Germany of anti-Zionism and anti-nationalism. It’s a tragedy that they are going there. They are anti-nationalist, and it’s important for them to wake up,” Chikli told the Jerusalem Post.

Though he’s downplayed his connection to progressive Judaism for years, in his new position, Chikli may begin to highlight those ties as he seeks to build a relationship with American Jews, the majority of whom identify with the Reform and Conservative movements.

He will take over the position from Nachman Shai, who made significant inroads with progressive American Jews over the past year and a half through outreach and dialogue as well as by allocating Diaspora Affairs Ministry funds to Conservative and Reform initiatives in Israel and abroad.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai speaks at the Israeli American Council’s national summit on December 11, 2021. (Noam Galai)

Chikli will not likely continue many of these programs, but he will be able to advance educational initiatives within Israel about Diaspora Jewry and the importance of it.

Compared to his predecessor, Chikli will have a far more difficult time building ties with US Jewry, as the incoming government is poised to advance policies that are at odds with the political and religious views of most American Jews as well as Jews from other, liberal large Jewish communities like Australia and the United Kingdom.

One issue that US Jewish leaders have already spoken out about is the incoming coalition’s plans to amend the Law of Return, which governs who is eligible for Israeli citizenship. Though the nature of the amendment has not yet been finalized, it will likely affect the so-called grandchild clause, which offers citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent provided they don’t practice another religion.

This proposal has been publicly condemned by some of the staunchest Israel supporters in the United States.

Another area with the potential to further alienate Diaspora Jews is the Western Wall and Israel’s failure to implement a 2016 compromise that would have granted official status to non-Orthodox denominations in managing the holy site. This has been a deeply divisive issue since then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the Western Wall compromise deal in 2016 when faced by hardline Orthodox opposition.

The newly signed coalition deals call for maintaining the current Orthodox control over the Western Wall, as well as further entrenching the norm of gender-segregated prayer at the site.

Chikli has largely refrained from commenting on these issues in public, but in his new position, he will likely be forced to take a stand.

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