Israel Elections: What are the parties' policies on religious issues?

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: A compiled list of the positions of major parties on the issues.

All parties voters can vote for at the ballot in Israel's March 23 election. (photo credit: SHLOMO BEN EZRI/CENTRAL ELECTIONS COMMITTEE)
All parties voters can vote for at the ballot in Israel's March 23 election.
 Israeli politicians and political parties are all too eager to hold forth on the headline issues and concerns facing the country, such as the Iranian threat, the International Criminal Court, the conflict with the Palestinians, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and more. 
But when confronted with the complicated, complex, and convoluted matters of religion and state, many leading politicians become exceptionally shy. 
These issues go to the heart of the very identity of the Jewish state and the Jewish people as a whole, and are the subject of intense and often vitriolic religious and ideological dispute.
This, in turn, causes severe political problems for many governments. 
In an attempt to find out the true positions of the political parties vying for the vote of the public, The Jerusalem Post sent a series of questions to all the major Jewish parties, asking them about their positions on conversion, civil marriage, ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF, and public transport on Shabbat. 
Not all parties answered the questions, and not all parties answered in a transparent manner. Nevertheless, the Post has compiled as best as possible what appear to be the positions of the major parties on these issues. 
The High Court ruled last week that non-Israeli nationals who convert through the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel must be granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
UTJ chairman Moshe Gafni and Shas chairman Arye Deri said they would demand legislation to undo this decision and revoke citizenship rights for non-Orthodox converts in Israel. Will the party support such legislation?
Likud Party representatives did not reply to the Post’s questions, including on conversion, and the party does not have a policy manifesto.
The Likud leadership, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, has, however, been hostile to the High Court’s decision. 
In an interview with the Post, Netanyahu said the country had to be wary of “fake conversions” and implied that the approximately 30,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers and migrants currently in the country could use such conversions to obtain Israeli citizenship. 
The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements both have a clear policy of not converting any non-Israeli national who does not have an A5 residency visa, which the asylum-seekers and migrants do not have. 
The Likud declined to answer the Post’s specific question about supporting or opposing legislation to revoke the High Court decision which the ultra-Orthodox parties say they will introduce and demand as part of their coalition agreement in the next government. 
Yesh Atid
Yesh Atid said it supports the High Court decision and that “we welcome it as part of our commitment to equality for all streams of Judaism in Israel. We are proud to stand with the Reform and Conservative movements here in Israel and across the world.”
The party added that it does not support “legislation to retrospectively undo decisions of the judicial branch.”
The Yamina Party criticized the High Court’s decision on conversion, although party chairman Naftali Bennett himself has not commented on the issue. 
In its response to the ruling, Yamina said the proposals of the Nissim commission drawn up in June 2018 were the best way to resolve the conversion conundrum, although the ultra-Orthodox and the non-Orthodox leadership, as well as most religious-Zionist leaders, all rejected the proposals and they remain dead in the water.
New Hope
Following the High Court decision, Gideon Sa’ar’s party pointed out that the Nissim commission issued its proposals close to three years ago but that Netanyahu had never acted on it. 
“We believe the outline of the Nissim committee is the right basis for finding a resolution to the issue of state conversion in the State of Israel,” the party told the Post. 
Yisrael Beytenu
Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman enthusiastically welcomed the High Court’s decision. 
The party in the past has, however, focused on allowing more liberally inclined Orthodox rabbis to resolve conversion problems, and never before talked of expanding conversion rights for the non-Orthodox movements.
Shas and United Torah Judaism
Shas chairman Arye Deri and UTJ chairman Moshe Gafni, as well as numerous backbench MKs, denounced the High Court decision, spoke disparagingly about non-Orthodox Judaism and their converts in particular, and vowed to reverse the ruling through legislation. 
UTJ even said that it would not join any coalition that did not promise to reverse the decision. 
Blue and White
Party leader Benny Gantz refrained from specifically welcoming or rejecting the High Court decision, saying the ruling created a new reality “for many thousands of people who see themselves as Jewish.”
In response to the Post’s question about supporting the ultra-Orthodox law, the party said opaquely that it would “always stand for laws that serve the broadest possible public in a spirit of compromise and would not encourage divisiveness or discrimination of any kind.”
Religious Zionist Party
Party leader Bezalel Smotrich described the High Court ruling as “dangerous to the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish state,” and said the court was “brazenly trampling the Jewish identity” of the country. 
Smotrich has promised to pass a law reversing the High Court decision and a law to override High Court decisions in general. 
The Labor Party
The party said that it welcomes the High Court ruling and would “continue the fight for an egalitarian and pluralistic society which recognizes all denominations of Judaism.”
Party leader Nitzan Horowitz welcomed the High Court’s decision, describing it as “an important step in the dismantlement of the Orthodox monopoly over our lives and great news for Israeli citizens and the entire Jewish world.”
Israeli law permits only the established institutions of the different faith groups in the country to conduct weddings, with no provision for civil marriage for those who cannot have, or do not want, a religious marriage. 
Civil marriages performed abroad are recognized by the Interior Ministry, but entail additional expenses and bureaucracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the absence of civil marriage since the approximately 9,000 couples a year who marry abroad can no longer do so, due to severe restrictions on international travel. 
The Likud
During the short-lived and outgoing 35th government of Israel, senior Likud MKs – including Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, ministers Yuval Steinitz and Gila Gamliel, deputy minister Yoav Kisch and coalition whip Miki Zohar – voted against legislation for civil marriages proposed by Yisrael Beytenu MK Yuli Malinovsky and Labor’s new leader Merav Michaeli. 
Yesh Atid
The party said that it believes “each citizen should be able to marry and build a family life together.... We strongly support civil marriage to allow any two people who wish to do so to have a family life within a legal-civil framework.”
The party did not respond to the Post’s religion and state questions. A candidate on the party’s electoral list referred the Post to the manifesto of the New Right Party which Bennett and Ayelet Shaked established ahead of the April 2019 election but which failed to pass the electoral threshold. 
Even that manifesto is extremely vague on religion and state issues, saying it would take the 18-year-old Gavison-Medan contract on religion and state as a “starting point for parliamentary discussions” on such matters. 
The Gavison-Medan contract calls for a civil marriage option for heterosexuals. 
Senior party MK and Yamina second-placed candidate Ayelet Shaked told the Post in August 2019 that the party, which she then led, would not support civil marriage, and that she personally opposes it as well. 
Bennett and Shaked were absent from the Knesset plenum when legislation on civil marriage came to a vote during the last Knesset. 
New Hope
The party said it believes there must be an answer “for thousands of Israeli citizens” who cannot marry through the Chief Rabbinate. 
“We will promote a solution that recognizes the institutionalization of the marital relationship and grants equal rights and status to couples who cannot marry in the rabbinate. We believe that this can be done without destroying the status quo that has existed since the establishment of the State of Israel.”
Senior New Hope candidate and former senior Likud minister and MK Ze’ev Elkin voted against civil marriage legislation in the previous Knesset. Sa’ar himself was absent from the votes. 
Shas & UTJ
Both ultra-Orthodox parties are strongly opposed to civil marriage, seeing it as a religious problem which legitimizes Jewish intermarriage and which would create problematic Jewish personal status issues. 
In a 2019 interview with the Post, UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus said his party would do everything it could to block civil marriage. Pindrus argued the status quo on religion and state created with the establishment of the State of Israel was formulated when Orthodox Israelis were a smaller percentage of the population than they are now, and that changing the status quo in a more liberal direction is therefore unjustified. 
The two parties’ MKs voted against civil marriage legislation in the last Knesset. 
Yisrael Beytenu
The party fully favors the establishment of civil marriage in Israel and proposed legislation in the last Knesset to create such an option, which was defeated by the coalition. 
Blue and White 
The party said it supports “civil partnerships,” which would have the same legal status as marriage, but leaves the term “civil marriage” specifically for religious ceremonies.
Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata voted against Yisrael Beytenu’s legislation for civil marriages in the last Knesset, as did outgoing MK and Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevitch.
The Labor Party
The Labor Party said it strongly supports civil marriage. 
“We believe that the ability to marry should be opened to all citizens regardless of religion, race, sex or gender,” the party said, noting that Michaeli proposed legislation on the issue which was defeated. 
Religious Zionist Party
The party’s manifesto has praised the status quo on religion and state formulated at the foundation of the state as a “realistic balance point between Judaism and democracy.”
Specifically, it has said that it will “protect the institution of marriage and the family” as part of its efforts to reinforce the status quo, meaning that it will oppose civil marriage. 
Smotrich voted against civil marriage legislation in the last Knesset. 
The party strongly supports civil marriage and voted for such legislation which came before the last Knesset
The 34th government of Israel, led by Netanyahu and the Likud from 2015 to 2020, gutted the law for universal Jewish conscription passed at the behest of Yesh Atid in 2014 during the 33rd government, and reinstated blanket IDF service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. 
In 2017, the High Court struck down that law as discriminatory, and the next government has until June to pass a law to deal with the problem of low ultra-Orthodox rates of conscription into the IDF. 
The Likud
The Likud has traditionally deferred to ultra-Orthodox parties UTJ and Shas to determine what the state’s conscription policies vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox population should be. 
Following the collapse of the 33rd government of Israel, Netanyahu said that the universal conscription law had been passed “against my opinion,” and allowed the haredi parties to pass their amendment reversing the earlier legislation. 
It backed legislation proposed by the Defense Ministry in 2018 to address the issue, but Netanyahu broke up the government without passing the bill. 
The Likud declined to say what its current position on ultra-Orthodox conscription is.
Yesh Atid
Yesh Atid and its chairman, Yair Lapid, have campaigned for ultra-Orthodox conscription from the outset of the party’s life. 
The party told the Post that “Yesh Atid believes there should be one law for everyone in the State of Israel and will keep fighting for equal sharing of the national burden.”
New Hope
The party said it would “reform the national and civil service” and “build a model that will expand the possibility of National and Civil Service for 18-year-olds.” 
The party emphasized the importance of integrating “populations” into the workforce but did not specify whether it would back efforts to increase ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF.
Bennett has advocated for reducing the age of exemption from IDF service to 21 from 26, and giving all ultra-Orthodox men an exemption from military service for a period of 10 years so as to integrate them into the workforce. 
After a decade, Bennett says, the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription can be revisited. 
Yisrael Beytenu
The Defense Ministry drafted legislation for increasing ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF when party leader Avigdor Liberman was defense minister in the 34th government of Israel. 
The legislation mandated increasing targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription, alongside economic penalties for yeshivot that do not meet quotas.
The targets and sanctions were considered to be mild by experts on the issue, who said that the legislation would help but not solve the low conscription rates in the sector. 
Its current manifesto advocates for universal conscription without exception for all 18-year-olds into either the IDF or National Service. 
Shas and UTJ
The rabbinic leaderships of Shas and Degel Hatorah, the non-hassidic half of UTJ, initially said they could tolerate Liberman’s legislation. The Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael, UTJ’s hassidic half, rejected the proposals, however, leading to opposition from both ultra-Orthodox parties. 
The 34th government of Israel collapsed in December 2018 ostensibly over this issue, although Netanyahu’s pending indictment is also thought to have influenced the dispersal of the Knesset. 
Blue and White
The party said that Gantz has introduced proposals that provide for “equitable service by all sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.”
The plan would direct conscripts “to military service or alternative security, community and civilian service tracks, according to the background and personal circumstances of each recruit,” while also allowing a limited and predefined number of exemptions for Torah study. 
The Labor Party
The party said it supports the Defense Ministry proposals that were advanced as legislation by Yisrael Beytenu in 2018. 
Religious Zionist Party
The party manifesto states that it will pass legislation creating a Basic Law determining that Torah study is a “foundational value,” therefore preventing the High Court from striking down blanket exemptions from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. 
The party says it would also incentivize IDF reserve duty with various financial inducements. 
The party described blanket exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students as “bankrupt” and said that it also trapped ultra-Orthodox men in a situation where they cannot enter the workforce.
It did not, however, call for universal conscription, saying instead that the focus should be on integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce, specifically by ensuring that schools in the sector teach core curriculum subjects such as math, English and computing, which many currently do not. 
Public transport on Shabbat is in effect prohibited in Israel, outside of a tiny handful of municipal jurisdictions which are exempted from the ban.
In favor of full public transport on Shabbat: Labor.
In favor of partial public transport on Shabbat, in accordance with the character of local populations: Blue and White, Yesh Atid, New Hope, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu. 
Against any public transport on Shabbat: United Torah Judaism, Shas. 
Did not answer: The Likud, Yamina, Religious Zionist Party.