Eyeing their community’s rightward shift, left-wing religious Jews form new movement

Grassroots group ‘Smol Emuni’ — literally the left-wing faithful — holds its first conference in Jerusalem, attracting hundreds of people from across the religious spectrum

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

Hundreds of religious, left-wing Jews attend the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)
Hundreds of religious, left-wing Jews attend the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)

Over 600 people gathered in Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo synagogue this week as part of a nascent grassroots movement seeking to give voice to an often politically homeless population of left-wing, religious Jews.

The conference, titled Smol Emuni — literally, “left-wing faithful” — had participants from across the religious spectrum, from the ultra-Orthodox to the traditional.

The idea for the Monday night gathering came about in the lead-up to November’s elections, which were won handily by right-wing and religious parties, specifically religious parties that hold right-wing or even far-right views.

“The recent elections were a wake-up call,” said Michal Zernowitski, one of the organizers. “In Israel, religious and secular people think that [those right-wing views] are what the Torah says, what Jewish law says. That if you are a religious Jew, then you must think that you have to get all the Arabs together and oppress them.”

Indeed, numerous studies have shown a rightward political drift among Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis over the decades. Haredi parties, for instance, were once equally at home in left-wing or right-wing governments, but in recent years have tied their fates almost exclusively to the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The religious Zionist Mafdal party was once relatively centrist, but it and its successors took a sharp right turn in the mid-1990s, particularly in response to the Oslo Accords and subsequent peace negotiations with the Palestinians. A left-wing religious party, Meimad, was formed in the late 1990s, but it folded after two elections.

Zernowitski, who works for the left-wing Berl Katznelson Foundation on issues relating to Haredi education, said a group of religious, progressive activists “who all knew each other from our work” decided to organize a conference for like-minded individuals.

“There’s no organization behind it. Smol Emuni is just a name that we gave it,” Zernowitski said.

Hasidic activist Malki Rotner addresses the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)

They hoped that 300 people would take part. Two days after they opened registration, 400 people signed up. In the end, upwards of 600 people attended the event, according to the organizers.

“What was nice was seeing people we didn’t already know. I only knew maybe 5 percent of the people who were there,” said Zernowitski.

A variety of progressive, religious figures delivered addresses, including Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of famed former Sephardi chief rabbi and Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef; Nitzan Caspi Shilony, a feminist attorney who focuses on religion-and-state issues; and Malki Rotner, a Hasidic activist.

Each spoke about a different topic of interest: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its own Arab citizens; rabbinic courts and the convergence of Orthodoxy and the state; education; poverty; and national politics.

Bar-Shalom, whose father helped found the Shas political party, lamented the rightward shift of the movement and the religious community in general.

“Haredi society has changed its face. Nationalism and extremism have taken it over,” she said.

Adina Bar-Shalom addresses the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)

She noted that her father, who’s still held in the highest regard among Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Israelis, supported “land for peace” initiatives with the Palestinians. “Today, you can’t mention peace,” she said.

“Arrogance and pride aren’t appropriate or acceptable. Friends, let’s be a bit modest. I believe in mankind, I believe in us, in the people of Israel, and in peace. Our job at this time is to put out the flames of hatred that are consuming us,” Bar-Shalom said.

In her speech, Caspi Shilony warned that the government’s plans to dramatically overhaul the judicial system and the High Court of Justice would remove one of the few curbs on the power of the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinic courts, which she said could be disastrous for women.

“The judicial system, which defended women, would no longer be there to help us under [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin’s plan. We will effectively be left with Jewish law bolstered by the ruling power and without the democratic safety mechanisms that we are meant to have,” she said.

Attorney Nitzan Caspi Shilony addresses the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)

Caspi Shilony also noted that the government’s plans to expand the role of religion in public life would not only be an imposition on the country’s secular population but on progressive religious Jews, whose views do not necessarily match those of the Orthodox hegemony.

“We talk about religious coercion against secular people, but freedom of religion is also being denied to us, religious people. Will my daughter be able to say Kaddish?” Caspi Shilony asked rhetorically, referring to a prayer said by those in mourning, which most Orthodox rabbis maintain should only be said by males.

Caspi Shilony said the overwhelming feeling at the conference was a sense of kinship, that people who often feel excluded from their religious communities because of their political beliefs finally felt part of a larger group.

Religious, left-wing Jews attend the Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/Smol Emuni)

“It was moving. Everyone spoke about how they felt at home, how there was kiddush hashem,” she said, using a Hebrew term meaning “glorification of God’s name.”

Where Smol Emuni goes from here is unclear, though Zernowitski said she did not believe a political party was in the offing. “It’s not the time for that,” she said.

For now, she said, the group hoped to produce educational literature and programs.

“We don’t have answers for our own children sometimes. They come to us with questions from school, something they heard or something a teacher said, and we don’t know what to say to them,” Zernowitski said.

Though the future of the movement is up in the air, Zernowitski said those involved are dedicated to it and are not deterred by the fact that they are in the clear minority among religious Jews today.

“The thing I keep thinking about is: ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it,” she said, quoting a famous line from the Mishnah.

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