Israel poised to have its most religious government; experts say no theocracy yet
Anticipated coalition likely to have major impact on religion and state issues, with reforms on kashrut certification, conversion and LGBT rights expected to be rolled back
Barring an unexpected turn of events, for the first time in Israel’s history, the government will be made up primarily of religious parties, with 33 seats in the projected 64-strong coalition going to the Religious Zionism Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism, two more than the Likud.
This is expected to have major implications on religion-and-state issues in Israel, as each of these parties has already laid out plans both to reverse reforms put in place by the outgoing government and to institute new ones to reinforce Orthodox control over religious life in Israel.
But despite these religious parties representing the majority of the government, they will be limited somewhat by the liberal — in the classic sense of the term — and secular parts of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which will still be the largest party in the coalition.
Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, director of the Shared Society Center at the Israel Democracy Institute, noted that this is a novel position for the Likud to be in, as the party is generally more traditional on religious issues and has long served in coalitions with Haredi parties and supported their policies.
“There’s never before been a Likud-Haredi government that didn’t have a moderating force — the Yisrael Beytenu party, Kulanu, Blue and White, Labor — there’s always been someone who offset things. Now there isn’t one. But the Likud has a mix of people, there are secular, and there are traditional. I don’t think they’ll so quickly change the status quo,” she said.
“We’ve reached the point of absurdity that the Likud is going to be the moderating party,” wryly noted Ravitsky Tur-Paz, who is married to Moshe Tur-Paz, a member of the Yesh Atid party, which will now go into the opposition.
One of the key forces in mitigating religious coercion in Israel has historically been the court system, which has struck down legislation and allowed for more liberal interpretations of existing laws. Every party in the presumed incoming coalition has spoken about the need to significantly curtail judicial powers and prevent judicial intervention.
Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of the Orthodox religious rights group Itim, said this could have a profound effect on religion-state issues going forward, removing one of the ways that Israelis have relied on to safeguard religious freedom.
“One of the things that have kept issues of religion-and-state — complicated as they are — in check was the power of the courts. But now there is a potential fear that the power of the courts is going to be reduced. That is a cause of concern,” he said.
Tani Frank, director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a long-time activist on religion-state issues, believes these parties will also likely rein themselves into a certain extent for fear of pushing their luck and finding themselves facing a public backlash.
“They know that anything they do will look — justifiably — like another step toward religious coercion. And people are already sick of that,” Frank said.
Though Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich has called for Israel to become a “halachic state” — that is a state governed by halacha, or Jewish law — Frank said that’s unlikely to occur, or at least that it won’t become more of one than Israel already is.
“I’ve found myself forced to remind people that we already kind of live in a ‘halachic state’ situation,” Frank said with a dry chuckle. “But I don’t think we’re going to be living in a full ‘halachic state.’ I don’t believe that tomorrow there will be a prohibition against LGBT people appearing in public.”
But, he stressed, that’s not to say that there won’t be significant shifts in religion-state issues, including rolling back LGBT rights, particularly as the explicitly homophobic Noam party, which is part of the Religious Zionist slate, is now poised to be in the coalition. But, Frank said, the fears of a radical overnight transformation of Israel into a pure theocracy are perhaps overblown.
According to Frank, this is not necessarily due to a lack of desire but rather to political limitation. Even with the majority that these parties have, passing any piece of legislation requires a certain amount of political capital and there are other issues that they would rather spend their capital on during coalition negotiations.
For the Haredi parties, such priorities will include giving more money to men studying in religious institutions, removing the employment requirements for childcare subsidies, ending the much-maligned taxes on disposable cutlery and dishes, and mothballing a proposed reform to increase competition among “kosher” phone service providers.
“But whatever doesn’t require legislation will be much easier to change,” he said.
The next health minister, for instance, could easily reverse current Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s decision to ban conversion therapy — a pseudoscientific treatment to change a person’s sexual orientation, which has been found to be both ineffective and to increase the likelihood of suicide — or his decision to allow homosexual men to donate blood.
What’s likely to happen
At the top of the legislative agenda will be overturning — at least in part — the previous government’s reforms to the way restaurants and food manufacturers are certified as kosher.
The reform, which was passed last November, would allow for private kosher certification agencies, in place of the current system in which only the rabbinate — through municipal rabbis — can officially deem a food business kosher. Though some initial aspects of the reform went into effect in January, the main privatization is only scheduled to begin on January 1, 2023.
This effort was denounced by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties from the start, who claimed it would result in lower kashrut standards. However, many saw the opposition to the reform as stemming from the fact that it would diminish the power of the Chief Rabbinate and lower the salaries of kashrut supervisors, who are overwhelmingly Haredi.
Though some of the more technical aspects of the reform may remain in place, the privatization aspects will likely be overturned, keeping the power solely in the realm of the Chief Rabbinate, Frank assessed.
In general, Frank said this presumed coalition is likely to focus on strengthening the Chief Rabbinate, enshrining existing powers in law, and giving it additional ones, such as allowing rabbinic courts to adjudicate monetary disputes, something that currently only civil courts can do.
“They are going to try to prevent the next Matan Kahana,” Frank said, referring to the former religious services minister, who spearheaded many of the outgoing government’s religious reforms.
“And strengthening the office of the Chief Rabbinate is something that no one in this coalition would oppose,” he said.
Ravitsky Tur-Paz said that in the initial few months of the next government’s administration, it will likely look to appease its base by publicly — and in some cases gratuitously — overturning everything done by the previous coalition.
However, she said, after that initial period of “demonstrating its victory and doing things ‘just because,'” she and other activists and researchers on religion-state issues “will be able to start having conversations and coming to compromises.”
But in addition to the things that the religious parties are looking to actively do, there are also many ongoing trends that began in the outgoing government, which they will likely halt, particularly those that relate to women.
Kahana, for instance, pushed to appoint women to positions on local religious councils. Those already in their offices will likely stay there, according to Ravitsky Tur-Paz, but there likely won’t be more appointments along those lines going forward.
The long-stalled Western Wall compromise, which would give official standing to non-Orthodox denominations in the management of the holy site, has been held up for years due to opposition from Orthodox and Haredi lawmakers. Ravitsky Tur-Paz said that will likely remain the case under the next coalition, barring an unexpected development.
Farber, whose Itim deals extensively with issues of conversion and helps Israelis in their interactions with the rabbinate, said that he’d hoped to take on new issues but in light of the election results, his organization is instead going into a “defensive posture.”
“We had items that we were hoping to move forward. We had hoped to make the Jewish investigations less invasive and less demeaning,” he said, referring to the probes performed by the rabbinate, normally on people from the former Soviet Union, to ascertain that they are Jewish before they can get married.
“But we’re going to have to put that on hold for now,” he said.
Farber said his organization was already restructuring itself in response to the election, putting greater resources into its legal and public policy departments.
Besides the issues that the government will want to advance, simply due to timing this presumed coalition will also preside over the next election of Israel’s chief rabbis next year, all but ensuring that they will be hard-liners. Though Frank noted that this would likely have been the case even if the outgoing coalition had stayed in power.
What might but probably won’t happen
In addition to the more consensus issues of religion that all parts of this presumed government would readily advance or overturn, there are several that are far more controversial, which the government would be hard-pressed to advance.
One such hotly contested issue is Israel’s immigration-governing Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or anyone who has converted to Judaism. The former criterion is different from the Orthodox definition of who is a Jew, which requires a person to have a Jewish mother. That disparity has resulted in roughly half a million Israelis not being Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, which is a major source of concern for many religious Israelis, who oppose interfaith marriages.
To address this issue, the Religious Zionism party in its platform calls for the annulment of the grandparent clause, which would dramatically reduce the number of non-Jewish immigrants.
However, such a move would represent a massive shift in Israeli immigration policy and would be fiercely opposed by the country’s population of people from the former Soviet Union, likely including the Soviet-born members of the Likud party. Frank said Smotrich would be unlikely to pick such a fight when there are other more pressing things he would want to address.
“[The Law of Return] is the kind of flag that Smotrich will drop quickly in order to advance other issues,” Frank said.
Another area that could, but likely won’t see a major change, is conversion to Judaism.
It goes without saying that the reforms that the outgoing government attempted to enact to allow for greater competition in performing conversions, which the Religious Zionism and Haredi parties fiercely opposed, will not go forward.
But the religious parties, as well as parts of the Likud, have also railed against a decision by the High Court of Justice last year to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism for the purposes of Israeli citizenship — not for the purposes of religion. A separate decision issued last month recognized Orthodox conversions not performed through the rabbinate for citizenship as well, including those performed by Itim’s Giyur K’Halacha program.
The presumed coalition could attempt to pass a law establishing that only conversions through the Chief Rabbinate would suffice for citizenship.
But according to Frank of the Shalom Hartman Institute, it is unlikely to do so as that would alienate both more progressive but decidedly Orthodox Israelis who support initiatives like Giyur K’Halacha, as well as non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, with whom Israel already has strained ties, particularly with the expected inclusion of far-right lawmakers in the coalition.
“Even with Netanyahu being of the mindset of not caring about Diaspora Jews, he still needs to leave himself some room for maneuvering with them. You can’t appoint [far-right politician] Itamar Ben Gvir and start passing laws that harm the standing of the majority of North American Jews,” Frank said.
As it is, he said, Israel barely recognizes Reform and Conservative Judaism. Such a move would strip away what little status it does have.
“There’s a difference between taking food off someone’s plate when they’re in the middle of eating and not giving them some in the first place,” Frank said.
However, Frank said he does expect there to be some legislation passed, even something relatively symbolic, to further strengthen the Chief Rabbinate’s already monopolistic control over the approvals of conversions.
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