Israel Elections: What does Religious Zionist win mean for progressives?

The list's policies and statements on a number of issues could impact a variety of sectors in Israel, including women, Arab-Israelis, LGBTQ+ people and secular Israelis at large.

Bezalel Smotrich and party members are seen with supporters at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (photo credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
Bezalel Smotrich and party members are seen with supporters at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021.
(photo credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
The future of progressive laws and policies in Israel has been placed in doubt as preliminary results on Wednesday showed Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party earning six seats, meaning the far-right party leader would be joined by the further-right Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties in the 24th Knesset.
The list’s policies and statements on a number of issues could impact a variety of sectors in Israel, including women, Arab-Israelis, LGBTQ+ people and secular Israelis at large.
Noam is an extremist party established by radical elements from the hard-line wing of the religious-Zionist community – specifically, close associates and allies of Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau, president of Yeshivat Har Hamor.
The party has run a campaign focusing strongly on what it views as Jewish values and strongly against LGBTQ+ people and reform Jews.
A number of Otzma Yehudit candidates have been disqualified from running in the past for racist statements against Arabs. The party is considered the ideological descendant of the Kach Party founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, which was banned in the ‘90s.
Otzma’s platform aims to integrate Jewish law into Israel’s legal system, establish sovereignty over the Temple Mount, encourage settlement projects, engage in “total war” against the “enemies of Israel” and expel “Israel’s enemies” from the country. The party also states that it does not want to “lose the Jewish state, neither in war, nor in peace nor through Western democracy.”
Otzma Yehudit and Noam have disagreed on somewhat progressive issues in the past. In an earlier round of elections, they failed to reach an agreement to run together due to a number of issues, including Noam’s refusal to allow women, secular people and those who visit the Temple Mount to run. Noam agreed to allow women and secular people to run in the merged list in this round of elections, on the assumption that the parties will split after the elections.
Avi Maoz, No. 6 on the Religious Zionist list and leader of Noam, described his efforts and positions as part of an “awareness-cultural-spiritual war” and a war of values he sees as funded by foreign bodies who are trying to “weaken” Israel, in an interview with Makor Rishon.
“Post-modernism says that what was true until a few years ago – there is truth and falsehood, there is good and evil, there is Zionism and not Zionism, there is Judaism and not Judaism, there is family and not family, there is nationalism and non-nationalism, there is man and there is woman – today does not exist,” he said.
Maoz has expressed opposition to the idea of a “state of all its citizens” multiple times.
The Noam Party leader has stressed that he is only concerned with the public sphere when it comes to policy and does not intend to push for policy that will impact the private lives of citizens.
Despite the slogan that LGBTQ+ people are “not normal” and their intent to push for policies that will affect their rights, members of the Religious Zionist Party have stressed that they are not homophobic or promoting hate.
Orit Struck, No. 5 on the party’s list, told the Knesset Channel earlier this month that she “never, ever had any negative sentiments toward private people for whom this (meaning being LGBTQ+) is their situation.
“They’re not to blame for their situation,” she said. “There is absolutely no reason to reject them, to kick them, to hurt them or to discriminate against them or anything like this. For sure, for sure this is not our way; it never was our way.”
Her party was “obviously against the flood of demands for legitimation and the pride parades,” Struck said, but that had no bearing on how they relate to individuals.
“We relate to the individual as an individual,” she said. “We love every Jew, every person as they are. Therefore, I don’t see anything outrageous here... We talk a lot about this subject.”
In the interview, the Knesset Channel cited statements made by Michal Waldiger, No. 2 on the Religious Zionist list, to Makor Rishon in February, in which she said: “Sometimes there is a conflict between liberal values and the Torah, but the Torah determines. There is a Creator who sees the whole picture, and if there is a Torah that does not allow certain things, then I am small and have to find a way.”
“At the personal level, I have quite a few friends with children who are religious and LGBTQ+,” Waldiger told Makor Rishon. “At the state level – what the public space will look like – it is more difficult. It is a difficult struggle that needs to be thought about.”
PARTY LEADER Smotrich helped organize an event in 2006 called the “beast parade” in which goats and donkeys were paraded in Jerusalem in a protest against the LGBTQ+ pride parade in the city.
He has since expressed regret for taking part in the event, telling Haaretz “I did it when I was young and I regret it.” In an interview with Arutz Sheva at the time of the parade, Smotrich had stated that the Pride Parade was “worse than the acts of animals.”
Concerning Arab-Israelis, Otzma and Smotrich have made comments that many Israelis saw as racist or discriminatory. In March of last year, Smotrich tweeted a biblical quote warning the Jews to “drive out the inhabitants of the land” lest they become “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides,” in response to tweets by Arab MKs vowing to fight discrimination in Israel.
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir has also stated that he will demand to be put in charge of security in the Negev and Galilee, home to large Arab and Bedouin populations, according to Israeli media. What policies he would implement to combat public security issues in those regions remains unclear.
Concerning women’s rights, all three parties have made statements against some progressive policies for women. All three are against women serving in combat roles in the IDF.
In the Makor Rishon interview, Waldiger expressed support for women who decide to join the IDF, but discouraged them from joining combat positions.
Concerning the education system, Noam has stated that it wants to make Jewish values central in the education system, which could mean that they will try and force out pro-tolerance education initiatives.
A NUMBER of right-wing politicians in Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party have also supported changes to the judicial system, including a law allowing the Knesset to override High Court vetoes of Knesset laws.
This could radically impact the situation in Israel for LGBTQ+ people and others, as many of the policies that have given rights to the LGBTQ+ community and have insured a lack of discrimination in Israeli law have come from the High Court, not the Knesset, and could theoretically be overruled by MKs if such an “Override Law” were passed.
Such a move could theoretically roll back decades of progress against discrimination should the Knesset subsequently pass legislation that goes against High Court decisions, such as laws concerning workplace discrimination, surrogacy and recognition of reform converts.
“As of now, it seems that the ‘just-not-LGBTQ+,’ which is obsessive about us, has entered one representative [to Knesset],” Shay Bramson, chairman of the Havruta organization for LGBTQ+ religious Jewish men, said in a statement.
“We remember what was here a decade and two [decades] ago, and see the long way we have come, without representation and sometimes despite the Knesset,” he said. “We will defend ourselves and our families tomorrow, like we do today and did yesterday, and we will defeat hatred and conversion [therapy], with the help of God.”
Despite being a relatively progressive country in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, LGBTQ-phobia is still strong in Israel, and their civil rights are still lacking.
Hate crimes against them have been on the rise for years, with LGBTQ-phobic cases reported once every three hours in 2020 in Israel, a 27% increase compared to 2019.
Conversion therapy is still legal in Israel, and Jewish conversion therapy organizations from the US have found refuge in Israel.
Same-sex couples still can’t marry, adopt or have children through surrogacy within Israel, and have to go through court rulings and expensive and complicated bureaucracy to achieve these basic parts of establishing a marriage and a family.