Soon-to-be first Reform rabbi in Knesset envisions ‘new deal’ with Haredim

Gilad Kariv, who rose through Labor’s ranks while flying his movement’s flag, calls for carrot/stick approach to ultra-Orthodox and thinks his party will again lead the center-left

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv takes part in prayers on Israel's independence day at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv in 2018. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)
Rabbi Gilad Kariv takes part in prayers on Israel's independence day at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv in 2018. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)

Throughout its history, the Knesset has had its share of rabbis serving in the halls of power. But in all those years, a rabbi from the Reform Movement has never been elected to Israel’s parliament.

That is set to change next month, with Rabbi Gilad Kariv poised to make history as the first Reform rabbi in Israel’s history to be elected to the Knesset. Kariv did well enough in January’s primaries to place fourth on the party’s slate, which he calls a “lifelong dream come true.”

Kariv is the director of the Israeli Reform movement, former rabbi of its Beit Daniel synagogue and community center in Tel Aviv, and a standard-bearer of the native-born Hebrew-speaking part of the Diaspora-dominated movement.

If elected – five weeks to election day, polls are giving Labor a comfortable six seats – he wouldn’t be the first Reform Jew in the Knesset, but he’d be the first Reform rabbi.

Schneur Zalman Abramov, an important figure in the Liberal Party in the sixties and seventies, was prominent in the founding of Reform institutions in Israel – and of the agglomeration of center-right parties that would become today’s Likud.

Though Kariv looks set to enter the parliament from the opposite side of the political spectrum, his views echo those of his Liberal Party predecessor: lionizing personal liberty and a middle-of-the-road diplomatic path, respecting free markets, while also valuing the old collectivist ethos and institutions that helped establish the Jewish state.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a leader in the Israeli Reform movement and a Knesset candidate for the Labor party, officiates at a wedding on June 14, 2019, in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)

The Times of Israel spoke with Kariv last week about those views, about the unexpected resuscitation of the Labor party, and about the surprising fact that a prominent Israeli Reform rabbi, who pointedly “flew the flag” of Reform Judaism in his primary run, managed to shoot to the top of Labor’s Knesset slate.

While some 35 percent of American Jews identify as Reform, in Israel only some 3% of Jews identify with the movement, according to Pew studies since 2013. But Kariv believes changes are afoot, especially on the center-left.

Reform Judaism, LGBT rights and other liberal causes are becoming mainstream, while the center-left camp as a whole, still reeling from the collapse of the Benny Gantz-led anti-Netanyahu coalition, is turning away from the newest crop of would-be saviors and hungering for a return to established parties and ideological consistency, he says.

“The center-left voter is more mature now, and isn’t chasing after the latest political reality television show,” he told The Times of Israel. “The center-left bloc is returning to its party structure. After the failure of [Ron] Huldai’s slate and [Ofer] Shelah’s slate, and probably also the coming failure of Yaron Zelekha’s slate, we’re back to the original political playing field of voting for established parties,” like Meretz, Labor and, he adds, Yesh Atid.

“Yesh Atid is now a serious and veteran party. I don’t like the fact that it hasn’t established democratic institutions internally, but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s a strong, well-established party,” he says, referring to the fact that the party is governed solely by leader Yair Lapid, whereas Labor and Meretz both have mechanisms for members to determine the leadership and makeup of Knesset slates.

The conversation, conducted in English, ranged widely. What follows is edited for brevity and clarity.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli (center) during a first meeting of the Labor party’s newly elected Knesset slate after party primaries, in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2021. Kariv is second from right. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Times of Israel: The Labor party seems to have been pulled back from the brink of extinction. It was polling at under 2% a month ago, well below the 3.25% threshold for entering the Knesset. It’s now polling as high as seven seats [about 6%]. How do you explain the turnaround?

Gilad Kariv: I think it’s a combination of two things. One, and she definitely deserves the credit, Merav Michaeli reminded party members about the importance of democratic institutions [within the party], not only to meet standards of good governance, but also how important those procedures are to sustain the political and ideological energy of the party. The members, and then the potential voter [in the polls], saw in her a real leader with political courage, with an ideological message.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem before the start of a hearing about public transportation on Shabbat, September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That revived the party and its base.

The second thing is that I strongly believe that the Labor party, despite many challenges we faced in the last two decades, still has a natural base of voters who are devoted to the party — but also new natural audiences of young people who are interested in the social values the party presents.

There’s a joke sometimes heard on the right about ambulances. Whenever you hear an ambulance, the joke goes, it’s either a left-wing voter dying or a right-wing one being born. There’s a demographic shift among Israelis to a more conservative trend among the young. What’s the future of Israel’s left, given that trend?

An ultra-Orthodox man walks near an election campaign poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I know Prime Minister Netanyahu is working hard, excellent campaign manager that he is, to hide the fact, but the results of the last three rounds of elections tell a different story. In the end, we have a powerful, charismatic prime minister who failed in the last three rounds — that he himself initiated — to obtain a majority. When you look at the Israeli political map, there’s a clear split that is not vanishing. So the suggestion that there’s a strong demographic shift toward the right I don’t think is based on actual facts, it’s based mainly on apologetic and victim-type responses from the Israeli left.

When I look to the future, I’m not suggesting it’ll be an easy or obvious win, but I think, especially in light of the pandemic, that the basic ideas of the Israeli left are the only ideas that can help Israel find a way out of this crisis. A social-democratic philosophy that protects the role of private initiative and free markets and private investments, but at the same time understands that the government has an important role in minimizing social gaps, addressing social challenges, regulating fair competition, in offering and supplying basic social services. It’s a political philosophy that encourages the government to make strategic investments, to understand that when you use the deficit, when you allow yourself to run a deficit because you invested in the cultivation of social, physical and economic infrastructures, that you will regain the investment.

It is quite clear those ideas are the only ones that will enable us to rehabilitate Israeli society and the Israeli economy after the pandemic.

It’s no secret that the only reason we managed to deliver a massive vaccination program wasn’t Netanyahu’s superb capabilities, but the health system in Israel that was constructed by the Israeli social-democratic left.

This isn’t about pining for a glorious past. Israel’s public health system is declining. Public investment in health services is declining. [Though real health spending is rising,] if you compare it to population growth, we are today [near] the bottom of the list of OECD countries when it comes to public health parameters: number of nurses per population, number of hospital beds per population, the balance between public and private investment in health services – we’re at the bottom of those lists. Thirty years ago, we led the developed world.

Hospital team members work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The gaps between central Israel and the periphery when it comes to life expectancy and access to health services are very high. It’s clear we need today massive public investment in strengthening the country’s health infrastructure.

I think that’s also the case with our ideas on our relations with the Palestinians.

Take the International Criminal Court decision [last week, that the court has jurisdiction in the West Bank and Gaza to investigate possible war crimes]. Meretz will find it hard to forcefully oppose the decision. Yesh Atid will oppose it but will find it hard to say in a clear voice, “We will initiate a dialogue with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and we believe in [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s policy of ending massive investment in the settlements.”

Labor is the only center-left party able to say both at the same time: We’re against the court decision and will work against it, whether we’re in the coalition or the opposition, and at the same time, the day after the election, we believe the Israeli prime minister should call Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and launch a sincere negotiation.

We believe there’s a massive Israeli audience that wants to hear that message, that believes in it and supports it.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli during a first meeting of the Labor party with new elected members in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On that day, after the election, who will Labor recommend for prime minister?

Right now, when you look at the polls, it looks like Yair Lapid is the leading candidate of the center-left camp.

We strongly believe that if we work hard, and if we work wisely, and if we don’t crawl into any government that happens to form, as the Labor party did many times in the past, then the Labor party has the potential to regain the leading position in this camp.

I have to say that I strongly believe Merav Michaeli has the qualities and abilities of a national leader. It’s time for our second woman prime minister.

But looking at this coming round, I think it’s reasonable to say that Yesh Atid will probably still be the largest party in our bloc [after the March 23 election], and then the natural recommendation is Yair Lapid.

MK Yair Lapid at a rally of the self-employed and kindergarten owners calling for financial support from the government outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That’s why we strongly urge the voters of the center-left to understand that we need a strong Labor party there to make sure Yesh Atid’s primary alliance isn’t with Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, but is first of all with the Labor party. For that we need a strong Labor party.

Will you sit in a government with Netanyahu? Labor has done so repeatedly in recent years.

No. Merav Michaeli said it out loud. She doesn’t have to prove how serious and sincere she is in that regard. She already proved it. She was offered half the kingdom to support Labor joining Netanyahu’s current government. She refused. And she paid a political price for sticking to her principles.

We all trust Merav that we’re not going to end up supporting Netanyahu.

I also need to say personally, I will not find myself a member of a Netanyahu coalition. Netanyahu bases his political leadership on hate and incitement, on tearing Israeli society apart. As a Reform leader, we were betrayed by Netanyahu more than once.

We need to thank Netanyahu for his years of service and say, “Enough is enough.”

A campaign poster for the Yisrael Beytenu party features the image of leader Avigdor Liberman and the caption, “Liberman will keep Israel liberal,” along the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Talk to me about ultra-Orthodox. Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu is campaigning to “end their rule.” Yair Lapid is taking a gentler tack, but his poll numbers rise every time Haredi crowds are seen on television defying virus restrictions. What’s Labor’s position on the Haredi political parties, on their handling of the pandemic, and on the so-called “autonomy” of Haredi society that we saw on display with the widespread lockdown violations?

Labor’s position is that we’re clearly facing a critical moment in the relationship of the Haredi community, or communities, with the concept of statehood and of being part of the civil fabric of Israeli society. I think that the vast majority of Israelis understand that today.

The Labor party believes that to use inciting language in an election campaign –

You mean Liberman warning about their “rule” over the rest of the country?

Yes, for example. To use inciting language and then to join coalitions and partner with the Haredi parties is dishonest and ineffective. In the end, Liberman has done nothing to promote a new deal with the Haredi community.

Police clash with Haredi men as they enforce coronavirus restrictions in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, January 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor believes we need to find a gentle balance of carrots and sticks. We don’t need to use inciting language, but we need to identify elements we need to enforce. For example, we need a single standard for law enforcement. We need to build public schools inside the Haredi community [to offer the option of modern education to those who want it], and to work with those parts of the community that are moving toward a more integrated lifestyle and politics.

The current and last few Israeli governments did almost nothing to support those positive developments within the Haredi community, mainly because the Haredi parties have done everything in their power to block it.

We believe that’s a more sophisticated approach.

Meretz placed billboards [critical] of Haredi rabbis on the Ayalon highway. We won’t do this. It leads us nowhere. We need to be clear that when it comes to law enforcement, core curriculum, defending women’s rights inside the Haredi community, that we won’t compromise. And at the same time, we fully understand the desire of the Haredi community to preserve their unique lifestyle.

Haredi Jews from the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Having said that, I have to say that when it comes to classic issues of religion and state, Labor was [in the past] more careful than it is today.

You mean it didn’t support religious pluralism issues? Could that be because it needed Haredim as coalition partners?

Yes, but not only that. I think Labor’s voters also held more traditional views. In the last 15 years, there’s been a shift among many Israelis, on civil marriage, on the LGBT community, there was an ideological cultural shift that has made the Israeli liberal community much more liberal on these issues.

In the last 10 years, the party has begun to say clearly: We will promote civil marriage and divorce; support the rights of the LGBT community; we won’t support the rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion; we want to support the growth of liberal Jewish cultural and religious communities, pre-army programs and so on.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 2, 2016. Rabbi Gilad Kariv is at right. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)

You’re a Reform rabbi and the director of the Reform movement in Israel. You’re now number 4 in Labor. You didn’t hide the Reform affiliation in your primary campaign.

The Labor party today is in many ways, I think, the natural political home of those Israelis who on the one hand are committed to the idea of a Jewish and democratic state, and on the other want a pluralistic country.

I see myself as the leading voice and ambassador of those values and political aspirations inside the party. I ran in the primaries not by hiding my Reform identity and my current position as one of the leaders of the Reform movement. I flew that flag. I came in second in the primaries [in total votes] precisely because I came with the message of freedom of religion and conscience, and of rethinking the relationship between religion and state in Israel.

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