Bennett seeks to break ultra-Orthodox grip on Religious Services Ministry
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Bennett seeks to break ultra-Orthodox grip on Religious Services Ministry

New Right head issues ultimatum in bid to reform office held by Shas for years and bridge Orthodox-secular divide; made similar threat in 2015 without following through

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to students of the Or Haim Yeshiva in Gush Etzion on September 1, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to students of the Or Haim Yeshiva in Gush Etzion on September 1, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

New Right party head Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that his party would condition its entry into any future coalition on appointing a figure from the religious Zionist community to the religious services minister post.

The Religious Services Ministry has been controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party since 2008, minus a two year stint from 2013 to 2015 during which Bennett held the portfolio.

The ministry oversees budgets for state subsidized synagogues, ritual baths, state-funded rabbis, conversion courts, Jewish cradle-to-grave activities and kosher supervision, which Bennett indicated should be controlled by a more moderate figure.

The ultimatum was first reported by Channel 12 and confirmed by Bennett in a tweet moments later.

“We will return the religious portfolio to religious Zionism,” Bennett wrote.

“Our tradition and heritage should become a glue of unity, not a battle arena. We must restore the Judaism that brings people together: in issues of kashrut, in marriage, in conversion — in everything,” he said.

According to Channel 12, New Right does not necessarily want one of its own lawmakers to hold the position, but rather an outside leader in the national religious community, which is seen as less stringent on many religious issues than the ultra-Orthodox.

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett (L) at a press conference in Ramat Gan announcing Shaked as the new leader of the New Right party, July 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Bennett’ and his No. 2 Ayelet Shaked split off from Jewish Home last year, claiming that the rabbinic leaders of the party prevented them from acting more independently.

New Right, which took similar hardline views on security issues to Jewish Home, has also campaigned on the notion of secular-religious partnership in an effort to bridge the gap between Israelis that has grown due to ultra-Orthodox hegemony over matters such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

Shas has demanded that Israel keep to a status quo regarding state-religion matters, such as the shuttering of business and public activities on Shabbat, angering others who claim their policies are a form of religious coercion.

In 2015, Bennett made a similar demand, warning that stripping his Jewish Home party of its control over the Religious Affairs Ministry would be a “red line.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on to appoint Shas head Aryeh Deri to the post anyway.

In 2018, Bennett threatened to bring down the government with a public demand that he be made defense minister. He later backed down from his ultimatum, though he was given the defense portfolio last month as part of the caretaker government.

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