The battle of forcing religious reform upon the government

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Religion and state reforms are not on the coalition’s agenda, but the High Court may bring them front and center once again.

ISSUES INVOLVING religion and state could be foisted upon a reluctant government. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ISSUES INVOLVING religion and state could be foisted upon a reluctant government.
During his first speech to AIPAC in March 2019, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz waxed lyrical about the need for unity among the Jewish people, and promised to implement the Western Wall agreement for a state-recognized egalitarian prayer space at the site, receiving a warm ovation for his promise.
And during the course of the three-election-campaign cycle, Gantz repeated this promise on several occasions, while he and his party made a raft of commitments on some of the most thorny and critical matters of religion and state.
But having joined a government that includes the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, all those promises are now impossible to implement.
What’s more, a series of pending High Court decisions on such matters could jam Blue and White between the demands of its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to legislate around liberal rulings, and the promises it made to its voters.
ONE OF the most critical religion and state issues addressed by Blue and White during the elections was the inability of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens to marry in Israel, reaching as many as 660,000 people by one estimate.
Some 400,000 Israelis, overwhelmingly from the former Soviet Union and their children, are of Jewish ancestry but not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Since only established religious institutions can perform legally recognized marriages in Israel, these people cannot get married in their own country, along with gay and lesbian Israelis, non-Orthodox converts to Judaism, and Jews with specific types of Jewish personal status difficulties.
Blue and White promised in its election manifesto to introduce civil unions, a form of civil marriage, to address this problem, but its ultra-Orthodox government partners see any such compromise as an endorsement of intermarriage and a blow to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which they control.
At least two of the Yamina Party MKs, currently in the opposition, would also oppose this measure.
Another key reform Blue and White adopted in its election platform was over the contentious issue of Jewish conversion. It proposed to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish local rabbinical courts for conversion, as was possible in the past.
The idea behind the proposal is to allow moderate religious-Zionist rabbis, who take a less severe approach to conversion on some aspects of the process than the ultra-Orthodox-controlled state system, to make conversion more accessible and welcoming, and also to increase the conversion of minors (with parental consent), an easier process than conversion for adults.
The impetus for conversion reform comes from the moderate branch of the religious-Zionist community which is concerned about interfaith marriages between Jewish Israelis and the many citizens of Jewish ancestry who are not however Jewish.
Once again, such reforms are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties and most of Yamina, which adhere to the highest stringencies for conversion even for those with recent Jewish ancestry for whom some rabbis say leniencies apply.
But not only will Blue and White not be able to advance reforms on this issue, it will have to fight a rearguard action to prevent the ultra-Orthodox parties from asserting even greater influence over the process.
Just last week, Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri promised to introduce legislation giving the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversion in Israel.
Currently, Reform and Masorti (Conservative) conversions performed in Israel are recognized by the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry for the purposes of being registered as Jewish in the population registry.
Additionally, Orthodox conversions performed in independent, non-state rabbinical courts are also recognized for registration as Jewish and for citizenship under the Law of Return, if the converts are not Israeli nationals.
Deri’s law would reverse these legal gains made for non-state conversion. Since these forms of recognition have all been won through the courts, it is possible Deri could even present his legislation as the rectification of “damage” to the 75-year-old status quo on religion and state.
The Shas and United Torah Judaism coalition agreements both state specifically that the Likud is to back legislation to rectify any changes to the status quo resultant from court rulings, and Deri may use this clause to demand government backing for his bill.
Communications Minister and Derech Eretz MK Yoaz Hendel, formerly of Blue and White, was a strident proponent of conversion reform in the elections but has yet to comment on Deri’s law.
It remains to be seen whether he and Blue and White would stand up to Deri and UTJ on this issue.
Another sensitive societal issue is that of public transport on Shabbat, long demanded by the secular public, supported by close to three quarters of the public, but long blocked by the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties.
Blue and White’s party platform said explicitly that it would enable cities that want public transport on Shabbat to operate it, but the ultra-Orthodox parties and parts of Yamina are fiercely opposed to the idea, saying it violates the Sabbath and harms the Jewish character of the Jewish state.
During the 18-month election campaign, several cities in the country’s central district, including Tel Aviv, Givatayim, Kiryat Ono and Ramat Hasharon, established a bus service on Shabbat and made it free for all passengers, thereby circumventing the laws banning such transport systems on the Sabbath.
Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni promised to introduce legislation to ban such services, and could again use the coalition agreement with the Likud to justify such a bill on the grounds that it comes to rectify a change to the status quo.
Once again, not only will Blue and White be unable to advance a key policy pledge, it will have to actually fight to preserve gains made thus far by the secular public which voted for the party.
Another promise was to reform the kashrut system and the monopoly enjoyed by the Chief Rabbinate over kashrut licensing, which has led to widespread corruption in the system and heavy criticism, include from the state comptroller.
The Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut system is, however, a significant source of patronage for Shas and UTJ, and, as ever, they and the Chief Rabbinate are also loath to relinquish their centralized control over religious services, so any attempts to pass reforms on this issue will fail.
The High Court has called for the Chief Rabbinate to implement a system whereby business owners cease paying kashrut supervisors directly, although this has never been implemented.
Any court intervention during the life of the current government would almost inevitably see demands by Shas and UTJ to pass legislation circumventing court rulings.
Finally, Gantz’s signature promise to implement the Western Wall agreement as part of his desire to unite the Jewish people will also be impossible to fulfill, given the ultra-Orthodox parties’ strident opposition to it and that of the hard-line wing of Yamina and its voters and activists.
The good news there for the alternate prime minister is that the issue has dropped so far off the political agenda and so far down the political discourse that there will be little pressure on him to do anything about it.
THE OPPOSITION is well aware of Blue and White’s vulnerabilities on these issues and its exposure to allegations of hypocrisy for having campaigned strongly on religion and state concerns, even promising a secular government shorn of the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties at one stage.
To that end, Yesh Atid-Telem, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz have all prepared legislation on every matter of significance on religion and state issues which they will bring to the Knesset plenum for a vote, in order to embarrass Blue and White, whose MKs will have to vote against or absent themselves from the vote.
Already this month, Meretz brought a public transport on Shabbat bill to a vote, which nine Blue and White MKs, including several ministers, voted against despite their campaign promise.
And there could be further bad news for Blue and White as well, as the High Court of Justice is expected to rule on several key religion and state cases in the coming months, after delays and extension requests from the government, due to the elections, come to an end.
The most explosive case is that of the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements demanding citizenship under the Law of Return for non-Israeli citizens who converted with them.
The threat that the High Court would accede to this demand led Deri to introduce his Chief Rabbinate conversion monopoly legislation in 2017, at the same time the Western Wall deal was indefinitely frozen.
This led to an unprecedented crisis with US Jewry, which is fiercely protective of all the legal gains made by the non-Orthodox movements in Israel over the years.
At the time, Reform and Masorti leaders agreed to request that the High Court not rule on the case as long as the ultra-Orthodox parties backed away from their legislation, a deal that has thus far been honored, notwithstanding Deri’s recent comments.
Should the progressive denominations retract their agreement for the court not to rule, and it decides to award their converts citizenship, the country will witness another crisis with Diaspora Jewry when the ultra-Orthodox demand to push through their conversion legislation, demand government support, due to their coalition agreements with the Likud, and threaten to topple the government if their demands are not met.
Blue and White’s 14 MKs would have the deciding votes in such a situation and Gantz would have to make a critical decision.
High Court decisions on the Western Wall agreement and the kashrut system are also pending and could pile up the political pain for Blue and White.
Gantz and his party made sincere promises during the three election campaigns to reform the antiquated and outdated manner in which the state deals with its interaction and conflicts with religion and the democratic necessity for pluralism and equality.
Although the alternate prime minister may have thought those promises would slip quietly away under cover of the COVID-19 crisis and the requirement for political compromise, he is likely to find it harder to ignore these combustible issues in the coming months.