One of the leading rabbis of the hardline wing of the religious-Zionist community together with other rabbinic figures and activists have signed an historic agreement with the leaders of the United Torah Judaism Party, giving their backing to the ultra-Orthodox party in return for a set of guarantees on key issues.
Rabbi David Hai Hacohen, dean of the Netivot Yisrael yeshiva in Bat Yam, together with Rabbi Avraham Schreiber, municipal rabbi of the town of Shavei Darom, along with other religious leaders and activists from the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community, were involved in the agreement.
According to Yaakov Shternberg, one of the leading activists behind the initiative, there are as many as an entire Knesset seat’s worth of voters, some 40,000 people, within the religious-Zionist community who could vote for UTJ as a result of the agreement.
The deal is remarkable given the Zionist ideology of these rabbis and the historic rejection of Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish sovereign state by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrae and Degel Hatorah parties which comprise UTJ.
It also indicates the degree to which the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community has moved towards an ultra-Orthodox perspective on matters of religion and state, and the disappointment and frustration of elements of that sector with its current political leadership.
The agreement was signed by UTJ chairman and deputy health minister MK Yaakov Litzman, together with MKs Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev and Meir Porush, and by Schreiber and Shternberg representing a new organization created as a vehicle for the new movement called Or l’Yisrael, or “a light for Israel.”
The agreement states that “UTJ does not support and is not interested, God forbid, in withdrawals from the Land of Israel, and in accordance with the decision of the Council of Torah Sages will continue with this policy.”
This is a key issue for the religious-Zionist rabbis who are party to the agreement, since Israeli control over Judea and Samaria and the settlements there is critical to their ideological and religious beliefs.
UTJ has never before committed to policies which would affect possible peace agreements with the Palestinians, and although the language of the new agreement does not commit to directly opposing territorial concessions is still a significant statement by the ultra-Orthodox party.
In addition, the deal commits both parties the deal to help Israelis living in the West Bank regarding their security, community life, education and religious life, another important issue for the religious-Zionist rabbis who wish to extend Israeli sovereignty to the region and make it an indivisible part of the state.
The agreement also stipulates that UTJ and the religious Zionist signatories are committed to ensuring that only conversions to Judaism conducted under the auspices of the chief rabbinate be recognized by the state, and that kashrut licenses only be granted by the chief rabbinate.
The language of the agreement describing “the dangers of liberalism,” and their “activities which are causing spiritual destruction to the principles of religion and Judaism,” is characteristic of the hardline religious-Zionist leadership which is vociferously against any state recognition for the non-Orthodox denominations, and against reforms to Jewish personal status issues advocated by liberal elements in the religious-Zionist sector.
Another major concern for the hardliners is their opposition to women serving in the army, particularly in combat units, and especially against mixed gender units, as well as their broader concern that the religious needs of religious soldiers are being ignored by the IDF.
The deal with UTJ therefore specifies that the two groups are opposed to women serving in the IDF and in mixed gender units.
It also stresses the importance of Torah study in yeshivas and the necessity for state support for such institutions.
Shternberg told The Jerusalem Post that the leaders, activists and supporters of Or L’Yisrael would not vote for Yamina, the mainstream party representing the religious-Zionist community, since it is led by Ayelet Shaked who is herself secular.
Shternberg said that from the perspective of Hacohen and Or L’Yisrael in general, the political representatives of religious-Zionism must themselves be religious.
He said that the Yamina candidates who have advanced the interests of the hardliners in the religious-Zionist community on matters of religion and state have been sidelined in the election campaign, and argued they would not have a prominent role during coalition negotiations to draw up red lines over issues such as Jewish conversion.
“Yamina is more non-religious than religious. It is headed by a secular person, we don’t care that she is a woman, they are conducting a secular, right-wing election campaign and no one is addressing matters of religion and state,” he said.
Asked how Zionist rabbis and activists could support the ultra-Orthodox parties which have not subscribed to Zionism, Shternberg said that “differences remain,” and that Or L’Yisrael supporters would not become ultra-Orthodox, and vice versa.
“I will continue to say Hallel on Independence Day with great devotion, and they will not, with all the symbolism which goes with this. But at the end of the day, we have agreed on a series of important issues ahead of the elections.”
Shternberg added that voting for the far-right, anti-LGBTQ Noam party, also from the religious-Zionist community, was not an option since it is unlikely to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, and said the same thing of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party.