Exit poll results published late Tuesday indicated that the far-right Religious Zionism party will win up to seven seats in the elections, bringing several extremist politicians into the Knesset, including Avi Maoz, head of the anti-LGBT Noam faction.
With so much focus on the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit’s presence on the Religious Zionism slate, which was cobbled together by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the presence of Maoz and his anti-gay agenda has largely flown under the radar.
If he indeed gets into the Knesset, Maoz, the party’s No. 6 candidate, will present a challenge for the country, which has actively worked to portray itself as an LGBT-friendly oasis in the Middle East.
Maoz’s Noam party burst onto the political scene in 2019 with a series of provocative highway billboards and video ads with the slogan “Israel chooses to be normal.” The party claims that the LGBT community has “forced its agenda” on the rest of Israeli society, which believes in a “normal” (heteronormative) family structure.
It has also likened LGBT and Reform Jews to the Nazis: A 2019 campaign video compares Reform Jews, left-wing activists and gay rights advocates to Nazis and Palestinian suicide bombers, saying all of them “want to destroy us.”
The extremist party enjoys the express backing of Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the founder of the hardline Har Hamor Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The 81-year-old has been a leading voice in the national religious community against LGBT acceptance. In 2017, he wrote that homosexuality is the “ugliest deviation, which breaks down family life… and contradicts the first basis of human existence.”
The party merged with Otzma Yehudit ahead of the September 2019 election, but failed to cross the threshold. It then ran independently ahead of the March 2020 election before dropping out days before the race.
Ahead of this election, thanks in no small part to immense pressure from Netanyahu, Noam merged with both Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union to run as the joint Religious Zionism alliance. The premier even freed up a spot on Likud’s list for a National Union candidate as he sought to prevent any right-wing votes, no matter how radical, from being wasted.
Even if the exit polls prove inaccurate, Maoz could yet make it into the Knesset through the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows ministers to resign from Knesset, thereby allowing candidates lower down the slate to enter instead.
Maoz, 64, served as director of the interior and housing ministries under ministers Natan Sharansky and Effi Eitam, respectively, from 1999-2001. Beyond the LGBT issue, Maoz campaigned on “strengthening the Jewish character of the State of Israel” by having stricter national observance of Shabbat, strengthening the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious life, injecting religious law into broader society and promoting “family values.”
In an interview with the Makor Rishon national religious weekly earlier this month, Maoz explained his concern regarding current social trends in Israel.
“There is an attempt to engineer our consciousness, to change our concepts. Until a decade ago, you could ask any child: ‘What is a family?’ He would tell you, ‘A father, a mother and children.’ You could ask him, ‘What is the nation of Israel?’ Every child once knew what is a Jew and what is a goy.”
He told the newspaper that the greatest strength of women is to get married and have children. Maoz is also against women serving in the IDF.
“The State of Israel is first and foremost Jewish and only afterward democratic,” he told Makor Rishon.
The anti-LGBT sentiment can be found at the top of the list as well, with Smotrich calling out “LGBT culture” and comparing gay marriage to incest just last week.
Such attitudes could set up a clash with a senior Likud figure, Netanyahu ally and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is openly gay.
Smotrich, who has a history of controversial statements on the issue, was asked in an Army Radio interview last week for his reaction to comments made by his far-right party’s No. 11 candidate, Eldad Rabinovich. Rabinovich had spoken out against Ohana and said the Religious Zionism party would work to “restore naturalness” to Israeli society.
The interview quickly turned hostile as Smotrich refused repeatedly to answer whether he views Ohana as “natural.” The Religious Zionism leader said he respects Ohana as a human being and considers him a friend, but has a “debate over values” with him and the broader LGBT community.
One of the Army Radio interviewers then called Smotrich and his party “racist” for refusing to grant equal rights to the community.
“Yes, there are individual rights and those are important, but beyond that, there are also values and public interests. There is also a social structure that can and should be debated,” he shot back. “You and your friends’ inability to demonstrate tolerance for my views — you are a thousand times more radical than me.”