Nir Orbach, ex-MK who toppled previous government, to head new Jewish identity office

Far-right Avi Maoz launches body that will oversee school programing, says that while he opposed Orbach taking part in Bennett-Lapid coalition, he’s not ‘engaged in score-settling’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Yamina MK Nir Orbach leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 21, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Yamina MK Nir Orbach leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 21, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Far-right deputy minister Avi Maoz launched his new Jewish National Identity Office on Thursday, tapping as its head a right-wing former lawmaker who had been a member of the previous coalition that had ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from power, and who then played a central role in bringing down that government and returning Netanyahu to power.

Nir Orbach, who was an MK for former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party from 2021 to 2022, will now head the body, which has the power to exercise oversight over educational vendors in public schools on behalf of the ultraconservative, anti-LGBTQ Maoz.

Maoz, the only member of Knesset from the Noam party, resigned earlier this year as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, arguing that Prime Minister Netanyahu was refusing to honor his promise to form the Jewish identity office. In May, he returned to that position and received NIS 285 million ($76 million) in funding, as part of a deal to win his support for the 2023-2024 state budget.

Maoz and Noam espouse anti-LGBT, anti-pluralist, and anti-feminist views, garnering significant concern and criticism from politicians and organizations opposed to his drive to exert control over the external educational vendors who supplement curricula in public schools.

Last year, Orbach quit the diverse, eight-party coalition led by his own party leader, Bennett, leaving it with a minority in the Knesset. Following the lead of fellow Yamina MK Idit Silman — who quit in April, joining Netanyahu’s Likud and is now the environmental protection minister — Orbach’s departure was central to the government’s collapse. Bennett was replaced by Yair Lapid, who headed the government in caretaker status until Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing, far-right and Haredi parties won the November elections.

Orbach said at the time that the coalition was being pulled “in problematic directions” after Arab coalition MKs Mazen Ghanaim (Ra’am) and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz) refused to back the renewal of long-standing measures extending Israeli legal provisions to settlers living in the West Bank.

Orbach quit politics last September.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with Yamina MK Nir Orbach at the Knesset on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

On Thursday, Orbach said in a statement that he viewed his new role as an “important public mission, especially in this complicated time in which Israeli society is divided.” He said his new office would “act to heal the rifts and strive to find the deepest common denominator — our national Jewish identity — which will strengthen the unity and resilience of the Nation of Israel.”

“Jewish values are a consensus, and I’m confident that we can act together to spread love of the Jewish people,” he added.

Maoz, in a statement aimed at his political base, said he was “aware that some are surprised and even outraged” at the appointment of someone who had taken a “significant part” in forming and running the previous “bad government.”

“I have criticized Nir Orbach many times,” Maoz said, adding that he had even orchestrated protests outside Orbach’s home. But he added that since the previous government fell, “I haven’t been engaged in score-settling or punishing certain individuals.”

Maoz said Orbach “intends to implement our policy: strengthening the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, a goal that all of us are acting and struggling to promote.” He said Orbach would work with government ministries to “remove obstacles, advance processes and transfer funds that will help us implement the many plans we initiated.”

MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy, Likud)

Maoz’s unit will have oversight of Gefen, the Education Ministry’s collection of approved, funded vendors, encompassing over 20,000 programs available to public school administrators. Spanning a range of offerings from sex education to bar mitzvah preparation to farming, external programming vendors are integral parts of public education.

The program would be nicknamed “Shaveh,” Hebrew for “equivalent” or “worthy,” with the full title translating to “Transparency and Notification of Parents.” One of Maoz’s core stated goals in the coalition has been to provide information for parents on educational program content, vendor identity and funding sources behind the programs. Some of the programs are funded by the Education Ministry directly, while others are sponsored by external donors, including — according to Maoz — foreign entities.

In addition to the “transparency system for parents,” Maoz’s Jewish National Identity Office will have three other purposes, according to the vaguely worded government decision.

The office will also “strengthen Jewish identity” via research projects and grant support, “assist and support educational institutions” with regards to Jewish national identity, and publish information about “deepening and strengthening Jewish national identity.”

Several mayors, including from the central cities of Hod HaSharon and Givatayim, have said their municipal school systems will not cooperate with Maoz’s plan.

Maoz has recently advocated shutting down Pride parades, reinstating the terms “mother” and “father” on government forms in lieu of the newly adopted “parent,” and enabling now-banned and largely debunked gay conversion therapy.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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