A haredi female activist, a Reform rabbi and a National-Religious campaigner were just some of the religious Knesset candidates for the Labor Party who lined up in a Jerusalem community center on Saturday night to argue passionately for the reestablishment of the party’s ties to religious Israelis.
In front of an audience peppered with knitted yarmulkes, the candidates took to the podium to lambaste what they described as the radicalization of the National-Religious parties, Orthodox control of religious life in Israel and made a pitch for the votes of religious moderates.
There were numerous appeals to Biblical injunctions against the oppression of minorities and the obligation to assist the downtrodden, while “Kahanists” and Otzma Yehudit bore the brunt of the attacks against the National-Religious parties.
Among the audience was Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, who may well have agreed with many of the policy proposals of his candidates, but would have been cognizant of the extreme difficulty of getting any of them implemented, given the electoral strength of exactly those religious parties which were so maligned on the Right.
First to speak was Yair “Yaya” Fink, founder and director of the non-profit, public-interest lobbying group Lobby 99 and is number 12 on Labor’s electoral list. He started off by condemning Bayit Yehudi’s union with Otzma and argued that social justice was a critical component of Judaism which the right-wing parties have ignored.
“‘Do not return a slave to his master,’ ‘remember that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’– it was not Labor or the enemies of Israel or the Left that wrote these things, the Torah did!” declared Fink, who is from the National-Religious community.
“It is not us who have forgotten what it means to be Jewish, it is those who have taken Tipex to complete portions of our Torah which talk about how to relate to those who aren’t like you, to the stranger, the widow, and the orphan,” he continued.
And he was sharply critical of the religious parties’ support and entrenchment of the Orthodox monopoly over religious life, saying that he has never met anyone who returned to religion because of religious coercion, “but I have met people who were distanced from Judaism because of religious coercion.”
MK Revital Swid, who is ninth on Labor’s list, continued in this vein, saying that the party could be the place the National-Religious community forms a new identity and breaks taboos, whereby it could maintain “the love of Torah and the land, and the people, but also think about the idea of two states for two peoples– and about equality for minorities, for women and for LGBTs.”
And although the liberal wing of the National-Religious community may seem like a target-rich environment for centrist and even left-wing parties, efforts to siphon off these votes in the past have not been successful.
According to research done by Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on the National-Religious community, only 7%of the sector voted for centrist or left-wing parties in 2015.
There may be one or two seats available from liberal National-Religious voters but the overwhelming majority of voters from the National-Religious public are right wing, says Cohen.
But both Fink and Swid are more optimistic than Cohen about their efforts to vacuum up liberal National-Religious voters.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Swid said that even one or two mandates would be a significant political prize, and opined that there are more and more people in the National-Religious sector who are turned off by what she described as the radicalism in the current religious parties which could be persuaded to change their political allegiance.
Fink made similar arguments, and pointed to strongholds of moderate National-Religious communities such as Givat Shmuel, Jerusalem and the religious kibbutzim as repositories of significant numbers of potential votes for Labor.
And if there is one point of light for these campaigners, it might be that the percentage of National-Religious voters voting for center and left-wing parties has increased from just under 4% in 2009 to over 7% in 2015.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform movement in Israel and number 25 on Labor’s list, also took up the cause of religious pluralism, somewhat unsurprisingly, saying that the religious institutions of state needed to be disconnected from the government and religious choice enabled in the Jewish state.
In comments likely directed at Gabbay, he insisted that Labor state– “without stuttering like other parties but declare with full voice” –that it supports recognizing non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, promotes civil marriage, and non-state kashrut and conversion.
“This is a banner without an electoral price and which would only bring political dividend,” the rabbi asserted.
Although these positions may have wide public support, their electoral value in appealing to the National-Religious community is questionable. With the haredi parties ruling out sitting in a coalition with Yesh Atid, and thus with the Blue and White political union because of its embrace of such ideas, the political cost of these positions cannot be ignored.
But Kariv also sought to broaden the discussion, insisting that as well as creating bonds with religious Israelis, Labor should also reach out to the religiously traditional community by embracing language and attitudes that speak to Jewish culture, history and tradition.
Kariv was not alone in this appeal. Michal Tzernokovski, a haredi woman who runs an NGO for the advancement of haredi women and who is number 21 on Labor’s list, echoed this proposal.
She said that the attitude of religiously traditional Israelis, blending respect for Jewish heritage with a less strict attitude to Jewish law, was a way of life that must be understood and respected both by the religious community and by the Labor Party.
“Their way of observing religion is not accepted. Traditional people are on the religious spectrum, and the lack of respect for this is much worse than the lack of respect given to secular people,” said Tzernokovski.
“If there is to be redemption in this country on religion and state issues, it will come from the traditional community– and so it’s good that the Labor Party is talking about these issues in this election campaign,” she said.
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