Noam: How Israeli politics became focused on a party of one

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Avi Maoz’s coalition partners also have expressed opposition to women being drafted into the IDF or, at the very least, opposition to their joining combat units.

 NOAM HEAD Avi Maoz speaks during a meeting at the Knesset, December 5, 2022. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
NOAM HEAD Avi Maoz speaks during a meeting at the Knesset, December 5, 2022.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Avi Maoz, the leader of the Noam Party, is the only member of his party in the Knesset, but has somehow become the center of political discourse in recent days, with everyone from mayors to ministers issuing statements against him.

In just a 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, over 300 articles were written about Maoz, according to a Google News search. In comparison, only about 180 articles were written about Prime Minister Yair Lapid in that same period.

The brouhaha is the result of an agreement Maoz signed a few weeks ago with prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, determining that he will be appointed as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, heading an office called “The Authority for National-Jewish Identity.”

According to the deal, the authority will handle “the strengthening and the formation of the national-Jewish identity in all public systems.” The authority will receive a budget of NIS 100 million in its first year.

Despite his controversial and notorious stances on everything from LGBT rights to non-haredi Judaism, the appointment has thrust Maoz into the national limelight in a way he has never experienced before.

  Noam Party leader MK Avi Maoz, December 5, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Noam Party leader MK Avi Maoz, December 5, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

MAOZ WAS born in Haifa in 1956, the son of Holocaust survivors Esther and Israel Fishheimer. He served in the IDF in the 1970s and was a partner in establishing the settlement Migdal Oz.

Maoz was one of the leaders in efforts to win the release of Russian-Jewish refuseniks and bring them to Israel, including Natan Sharansky.

The Noam Party head studied in Yeshivat Har Hamor under Rabbi Tzvi Thau as well.

It is unclear how exactly the authority Maoz is set to establish will function and how much control it will have. The party and the agreement state that these details will be decided once a government is formed.

Maoz will also be given authority over the Nativ program, which decides the eligibility of people from the former Soviet Union to make aliyah, and over the Education Ministry’s unit responsible for external programming at schools.

Maoz described receiving responsibility for the Nativ organization as “coming full circle,” pointing to his efforts in the 1980s in the fight to win the release of Soviet Jews and bring them to Israel.

So what is the storm about? Why is Maoz’s name all over the news? In order to understand that, it’s worth looking at Noam’s origins.

The party's origins

The Noam Party was founded in 2019 by members of the Hazon movement, which made its debut earlier that year with a large banner in Jerusalem reading “A father and a mother = a family. The courage to be normal.”

The Hazon movement proceeded with a large-scale campaign with similar signs and intensive SMS campaigns and a petition in support of its views, which got over 100,000 signatures.

Since then, Hazon has largely been replaced by the Noam Party and seemingly hasn’t been active since 2020.

The Noam Party’s first attempt to enter the Knesset included a widespread campaign in which it set up booths around the country manned by activists handing out pamphlets explaining Noam’s plan to make Israel “a normal nation” with a large focus on anti-LGBT and anti-Reform movement slogans.

Since its launch, Maoz’s movement, consisting largely of students of the Har Hamor stream, has drawn the ire of many, due to the movement’s hardline ideals and the language it used to refer to LGBT people and others it disagreed with as “not normal.”

Despite his party’s statements against LGBT and Reform people, Maoz has stressed that he does not want to enter the personal lives of citizens and instead is concerned with confronting large-scale organizations and movements he sees as “foreign” and as forcing an agenda.

His control over the access of external programming to the education system may help him achieve that goal.

The Unit for External Programs and Promotion of Partnerships is responsible for “the development and leading of dialogue between societal sectors in the units of the Education Ministry while imparting skills for sharing processes and creating a culture of participatory governance.”

Everything from art programs to science programs to political and societal programs are offered by external organizations with the approval of this unit. LGBT organizations such as Israel Gay Youth, Hoshen, and Shoval provide programming for Israeli students through this unit.

School principals can choose programs off the list approved by this unit to allow into their schools. For example, a more conservative, religious school may choose programs about religion or tradition or Jewish history, while a more liberal, secular school may prefer programming about LGBT tolerance or feminism. Each school has the choice to decide which programs it allows and which programs it doesn’t.

In an interview with Channel 14 last week, Maoz warned that “foreign foundations and foreign countries that finance study programs in the Education Ministry have infiltrated the country,” pointing to over 3,000 study programs he said are organized by “left-wing entities.”

Maoz added that he intends to “return all public systems to Jewish identity,” stating that he would remove “gender studies” from the education system.

Such statements and the fact that he will have control over external programming in the education system have sparked concerns that Maoz will exacerbate LGBT-phobia in the education system and Israeli society and isolate or harm LGBT youth.

According to data from the Aguda – The Association for LGBT Equality in Israel, there has been a 75% increase in LGBT-phobia since the elections, with 462 incidents of hate and violence reported in November compared to 265 incidents in November last year.

While, currently, principals can choose from a wide variety of external programs in order to pick ones that fit their schools, Maoz’s statements indicate that at least 3,000 programs could be banned once he has authority over the unit. Programs that promote tolerance, such as Hoshen or Shoval, may be at risk of losing public funding.

THE AGREEMENT to give Maoz control over the unit sparked widespread outrage among both Knesset politicians and local authorities, with over 80 localities issuing statements that they would locally fund affected programs, and Lapid calling on all local authorities to “protect the education system.”

But that may not be enough. According to a circular by the director-general of the Education Ministry, schools are allowed to choose external programming only if it is on the unit’s list. Programs outside that list are not allowed into schools.

LGBT and liberal programs aren’t the only ones at risk, however. Maoz is part of the Har Hamor stream and has expressed public opposition to Yeshivat Har Etzion and similar yeshivot having influence on the education system.

In September, Maoz sparked outrage after stating in an interview that “Har Etzion will not take control” of the religious public education system, calling rabbis from the yeshiva “minor and marginal.”

Maoz did apologize for his remarks the day after making them, stating in a letter to the yeshiva that his remarks were “invalid and inappropriate.”

Former education minister Shai Piron, who was a member of Yesh Atid, expressed concerns last week that Maoz would prevent National-Religious figures such as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Benny Lau and Rabbanit Malka Puterkovsky from having their voices heard in the education system.

“Don’t get confused. This means that instead of conducting a proper debate on the concepts of education, we will receive instructions from the commissar of culture and spirit.... This means controlling the discretion of principals and, mainly, denying the power of educators to shape identity and responsibility,” said Piron.

Education isn’t the only matter facing changes in a coalition featuring Maoz.

Maoz has called for the cancellation of the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance and for the closure of the army’s Gender Affairs Department. In his position heading Nativ, he may also be able to change the parameters determining which people from the former Soviet Union can receive citizenship and make them more restrictive.

Amid the uproar, Netanyahu has condemned opposition members for calling for protests and rushed to assure the public that “the pride parade in Jerusalem will continue to march,” stressing that a government headed by him “will not harm the LGBTQ community or the rights of every citizen in Israel,” in multiple statements.

But it is unclear how Netanyahu intends to stop anti-LGBT policies in the coalition he is building. At the end of the day, it is the ministers who have control over their ministries, not the prime minister. While the Likud could block matters of legislation, that could risk threats of dissolving the government and would not help with matters beyond legislation.

The Likud does have a history concerning anti-LGBT policy in the face of threats to its coalition. In 2018, Netanyahu promised to include single fathers and same-sex couples in an amendment to the Surrogacy Law. The haredi parties threatened to leave the coalition if Netanyahu did so, and the Likud ended up going back on its promise.

The issue sparked nationwide protests by the LGBT community at the time, with thousands of protesters blocking highways multiple times over a few weeks and launching a daylong nationwide strike.

SO WHY is Maoz stirring up such a storm? After all, he is just one MK, no? Not quite.

The intensive focus on Maoz ignores a larger issue, according to observers. He is just one MK, but he will be sitting in a coalition alongside members of the Religious Zionist, Otzma Yehudit and haredi parties who share many similar views on LGBT people, women’s rights and other issues.

While Maoz alone may not have the authority to cancel the Jerusalem march, his coalition partner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, could. In his role as national security minister, Ben-Gvir is set to receive much of the powers currently held by the chief of police, including the power to approve or block protests.

While it is unclear whether he would use that power to block Pride events, Ben-Gvir and the rest of his Otzma Yehudit Party, the Religious Zionist Party and part of the Likud Party have all called for at least the Jerusalem pride parade to be canceled recently and in the past.

Maoz’s coalition partners also have expressed opposition to women being drafted into the IDF or, at the very least, opposition to their joining combat units. While in past governments, such an opinion sat with the minority, in the pending coalition, this opinion is shared by at least half of its members.

Additionally, while in the past the judicial system and especially the High Court of Justice have often stepped in to protect LGBT rights in line with Israel’s Basic Laws, the incoming coalition intends to pass an “override clause” that would prevent the High Court from vetoing legislation it believes violates the Basic Laws.

While Netanyahu has spent the past few weeks promising the world that he’ll keep matters under control, he seems to forget that he is forming a coalition with 32 MKs who largely agree on how to treat the LGBT community, women and settlements. He is giving some of the more extreme members of this pending coalition unprecedented power outside of matters of legislation.

At the end of the day, it seems unlikely that he would risk losing his coalition for the sake of protecting such rights, as he has failed to do so when faced with even less opposition in the past.

So Maoz has become the focus of attention on this issue and the coming government perhaps because he states clearly and succinctly what the rest of his coalition plans to do, without a filter. In a vacuum, Maoz may be just one man, but the incoming coalition is not a vacuum, and the Noam Party leader will be joined by over 30 others who aim for the same goals.