Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem said that following the upcoming election he will
work toward having a national- religious rabbi appointed to the post of chief
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, the
outspoken MK also said that he opposes state recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis,
marriages and conversions in Israel, and that his party remains in favor of a
“population for land” settlement with the Palestinians, where Israel would gain
sovereignty over settlement blocs while Arab towns in Israel close to the Green
Line would be exchanged in return.
He also emphasized his party’s
Jewish-nationalism credentials and its support for “traditional” Jewish
practice, but said that it was opposed to what he termed “religious politics,”
which he accused ultra- Orthodox parties of indulging in, instead of
Responding to his comments on non-Orthodox denominations, MK
Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz denounced the “dark opinions” of Rotem, and accused
him and his party of having “betrayed its voters in favor of an Orthodox
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel,
also condemned the remarks, calling Rotem “one of the most dangerous political
forces in the Knesset when it comes to democratic values and the value of
who stands against the idea that the State of Israel should
be the beating heart of all Jewish people and all its streams.”
January’s general election and favorable polling figures for national-religious
party Habayit Hayehudi at the expense of the joint Likud- Yisrael Beytenu
list, Yisrael Beytenu has been promoting itself as a natural party for
national-religious voters given its strong emphasis on Jewish nationalism and
the Jewish identity of the state.
Rotem said that one of his central
goals was for a national- religious rabbi to be appointed as chief rabbi when
the terms of current chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar end next
“I want to have a nationalreligious chief rabbi,” said Rotem. “I
grew up when the Chief Rabbinate was a national- religious institution and I’m
not in favor of the fact that haredi rabbis have taken it over.”
said that he intended to speak to the various national-religious rabbis who are
considering running for the position in order to convince them that a consensus
candidate should be found.
Rotem added that a chief rabbi need not be an
outstanding Torah scholar, but instead be able to speak and communicate
effectively as an ambassador for Judaism. His comments about the position of
chief rabbi were made in the context of the public debate surrounding both civil
marriage and conversion in Israel.
Civil marriage is unavailable in
Israel between people of the same or different faiths, largely due to the
objections of the Orthodox establishment who argue that instituting it will
create irreconcilable divisions within the Jewish people.
marriage is a hotbutton issue for Yisrael Beytenu because of the large number of
voters the party attracts from Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union,
many of whom are not defined as Jewish according to Jewish law and therefore
cannot marry other Jews in Israel.
During the last Knesset, Rotem and
Yisrael Beytenu succeeded in passing a law legalizing civil marriage between two
people officially defined as being “without a religion,” although this status
does not apply to the vast majority of people seeking civil
Rotem also sponsored legislation promoting civil unions for
people of different religions, or of the same religion who nevertheless do not
want a religious wedding, which he said was originally the idea of former
Sephardi chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron from whom he sought advice for his
He said during the interview that he did not want to promote
full-fledged civil marriage because he wanted to stay within the boundaries of
Jewish law, although an earlier bill proposed by Rotem allowing a couple to
register as married even if their wedding in Israel was not conducted by an
Orthodox rabbi was voted down in the Knesset in 2008.
Rotem also defended
his proposed legislation for reforming the conversion process which was
criticized by both Orthodox and non- Orthodox factions.
The issue is also
important to the Yisrael Beytenu’s core constituency because of the
approximately 320,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not
considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
The bill would have allowed
every municipal or city rabbi to conduct conversions, and allowed anyone to
approach any such rabbi for conversion regardless of where they or the rabbi
lived. But the bill would also have given the chief rabbinate greatly increased
control over the process, something which the non-Orthodox factions objected to
“I want conversion to be done according to Halacha, I don’t
want it to be a joke, that someone says ‘I’m a Jew’ and then they’re Jewish,”
Rotem said. “Yisrael Beytenu is not against Orthodox Judaism.
Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman] knows what Judaism is and what respect for
religion is more than most of members of Israeli Knesset...
understands the importance of Judaism.
“The Reform and Conservative
[movements] don’t care about those 320,000 people because they won’t become
Reform or Conservative. We will not recognize non-Orthodox rabbis, conversions
or marriage,” the MK said.
“I don’t want them to convert in this country
because I don’t need Conservative and Reform communities in this country. In
this country you can be Jewish, religious or not religious, and I don’t want to
change this. I don’t want a Reform rabbi to check my dishes,” he
Kariv said that Rotem’s comments prove that “he is the best ally
of the haredi parties in the Knesset” and that “there is no connection to the
so-called liberal open-minded rhetoric of Yisrael Beytenu in religion and state
and his actions in Knesset.”
During the interview, Rotem also addressed
the issue of army enlistment for the ultra- Orthodox and defended his and his
party’s decision to leave the Plesner Committee earlier this year, which had
been tasked with devising new legislation to increase haredi participation in
national service programs.
Rotem and Yisrael Beytenu abandoned the
legislative effort because the proposals being drafted would not have enacted
the same obligations and penalties on Arab citizens as it would have on haredi
citizens, he said.
“This was not equality in the burden of national
service,” Rotem claimed. “It is about time that everyone served the country and
everyone went to the army. I don’t believe in doing it gradually... and I’m not
willing to say that only Orthodox guys go to the army but Arabs should be
Arab citizens are not required to do military or national service
although there are approximately 2,000 Israeli Arabs who volunteer for national
service programs every year.
He also rejected the proposal made by Arab
leaders at the time that they would only discuss the issue of national service
in the Arab sector if at the same time discussions and proposals were adopted to
address disparities between the Arab and Jewish populations in terms of
education, employment and representation in the public sector.
give your part to your state because you are a citizen and citizenship is a
partnership,” he said.
Rotem said that Yisrael Beytenu does not seek to
punish anyone who does not serve but instead will retract government benefits to
anyone who fails to do so.
“If you want to sit and learn, then sit and
learn on your own account,” said Rotem of full-time haredi yeshiva
“I’m not going to give you money, not for housing, and not for
other state subsidies either... If someone chooses not to be a partner with me
and he chooses to live in poverty, good luck to him.”
Beytenu’s stance regarding Israel’s Arab citizens, Rotem brushed aside concerns
that the party’s policies are further alienating the Arab minority, and
reiterated Yisrael Beytenu’s policy of exchanging “population for
“Taiba [an Arab-Israeli city abutting the Green Line] is going to
be part of the Palestinian state and Gush Etzion is going to be part of the
Jewish State,” Rotem said.
The MK dismissed concerns about the legality
of such a policy under international law, arguing that general populations are
not consulted in international treaties and pointing to population transfers
which have been affected in other conflicts.
The Universal Declaration of
Human Rights forbids a state from arbitrarily depriving a citizen of their
“I see their representatives, I listen to them every week
and I’m not willing to be in a position that my citizens will stab me in the
back. I’m not willing to accept it,” he said. “I want [Arab citizens] to be
loyal, I want them to be equal citizens I don’t want to discriminate against
them, I want them to serve in national service and be able to study... but they
have to understand that the State of Israel is a Jewish state and that we are
here to stay and they will not be able to throw us out of here.
a Jewish country, the only homeland of the Jews,” Rotem said. “We don’t have any
other place, we don’t have any other country. Anti-Semitism is visible around
the world, and we are not going to run away again.”