Will the new gov't drastically change the religion-state status quo? - analysis

While there isn't much new in demands by Shas and UTJ, government newcomers in the RZP bloc might be looking to shake up the status quo.

 Benjamin Netanyahu and Avi Maoz meet ahead of coalition negotiations. (photo credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Avi Maoz meet ahead of coalition negotiations.
(photo credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON)

How will the new government influence religion and state in Israel? “People need to calm down and understand that there isn’t a big difference between what the Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties have requested this time around from any other government they were members of in the past few decades,” according to Tani Frank, an expert in issues of religious and state and the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The coalition agreements of Shas and UTJ are based on agreements that existed since at least 2009,” he continued, giving as examples issues that involve working on Shabbat. “This isn’t a new topic; it’s been listed on coalition agreements for more than a decade and hasn’t ever been implemented the way they would like.” Frank explained that there are many “verbal or declaratory clauses.”

The real difference to previous governments

What differentiates this coalition from previous governments is the Religious Zionism Party bloc, the center’s director said. “The RZP, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties have never been in a government – definitely not in this constellation.”

Frank mapped out three major broad issues that could affect religion and state in the new Netanyahu government. The first is the issue of “Who is a Jew?” about which he said that “there is a desire to reduce the trend of aliyah of people with Jewish roots, who are entitled to become Israeli citizens through the Law of Return. They basically want to cancel the Grandchild Clause, and that created immense criticism.”

He shared that, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu has made the agreement say that there will be a discussion on the matter. “In previous governments, there were similar demands to discuss the issue of conversion in a committee established for this matter – as is the situation with the Law of Return in this government – and nothing really happened or changed.”

 United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzchak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni sign a coalition agreement with Likud, December 6, 2022. (credit: UNITED TORAH JUDAISM) United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzchak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni sign a coalition agreement with Likud, December 6, 2022. (credit: UNITED TORAH JUDAISM)

Frank warns that even though this isn’t listed specifically in the agreements, the religious parties want to make the official state body that is in charge of conversion to Judaism become more strict in order to “move the needle back to the time when Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel weren’t acknowledged in order to become a citizen.”

Strengthening the Chief Rabbinate

The second issue that he highlights from the coalition agreements is the intention of strengthening the Chief Rabbinate in many ways. “Contrary to the status quo they said would be maintained, Deputy Minister Avi Maoz of the Noam party pledges to be involved in the state’s position before the High Court regarding the implementation of the Kotel compromise,” Frank explained.

“He also demanded that a representative of the Chief Rabbinate be a member of the official committee that decides if a state funded-renovation or building project can take place on Shabbat,” he said. Frank also mentioned the demand that the chief rabbi should recommend the candidate for IDF’s chief rabbi as a clause that is intended to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate.

There are also intentions, according to Frank, to cancel the Kashrut Reform that former Religious Services minister Matan Kahana promoted in the outgoing government. As an example proving his point, he added that there is also an intention to strengthen the rabbinic courts and give them more authority.

Jewish identity

The third issue is the intention of the religious parties, mainly the UTJ bloc, to strengthen Jewish identity. “There will be NIS one-and-a-half billion for organizations dealing with Jewish identity,” Frank said, giving a few examples.“The National Missions Ministry that will be led by Orit Stuck will receive 10 times what the existing ministry received so far,” the religion and state expert said, citing the new NIS 700 million budget as opposed to today’s NIS 70 m. In addition, Maoz is expected to receive a budget of NIS 300 m. for the institutions and projects that he runs.

Frank concluded by saying that “those who need to be monitored are mainly the members of the RZP bloc, who are expected to try and make big changes in religious and state status quo in Israel.”