Three months ago, Noam MK Avi Maoz resigned from his post as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office in protest of not receiving the authority and budget promised to him as part of the coalition agreements signed two months previously. Only a week ago and days before the budget deadline, he had threatened to vote against the budget proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
A week on and he is back in the Prime Minister’s office as deputy minister, with a two-year budget of NIS 285 million to fund the formation of his Jewish Identity Authority. Sadly, instead of promoting Jewish identity, it will be used to root out any ideas that Maoz and his spiritual sponsors oppose. I am confident that not a single Israeli citizen will care more deeply about their Judaism as a result, and the most likely result is the opposite.
The Noam Party
Noam is the smallest of the three groups that form the party led by MK Bezalel Smotrich under the banner The Religious Zionist Party. It has a single member of Knesset, and was established and is led by Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the founder and ideological leader of Yeshivat Har Hamor. They represent the most extreme and intolerant religious platform in the Knesset and embody an ideology developed by Tau over many decades. Tau broke away from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in 1997 and competed for the title of an authentic follower of Rabbis Avraham and Tzvi Yehuda Kook and so became the de facto ideological leader of the religious Zionist community.
Within the national religious community, Har Hamor is known as the flagship institution of what are called the Kav Yeshivot, literally meaning that they follow the same ideological line as Tau. His ideology is highly conservative from both a religious and nationalist perspective. Tau is anti-academia, anti-feminism and obsessively anti-LGBTQ+. He believes in creating his own autonomous religious community largely dedicated to Torah study, somewhat similar to the ultra-Orthodox community, with his own education system. At the same time, they see a holy mission in spreading their ideology across the entire education system, religious and secular alike.
It is hard to understate the fierceness of Tau’s rhetoric. In a lecture to a closed circle of rabbis reported on Srugim (a leading website for the religious Israelis), he referred to a global conspiracy pushing ultra-progressive ideas into the IDF and the education systems. “We must not be silent, there are new victims that fall daily. Who dreamt of a girl in a tank? They stay silent when they let two men cohabit and raise a child. The whole house stinks. They have decided that the defilement is natural.” All the while calling the heads of the IDF a Junta, controlled by outside forces with a nefarious agenda. This is the rhetoric of Tau and his followers, many of whom have made the headlines for the incendiary content of their lectures to yeshiva students on issues of feminism and the LGBTQ+ community. In a bitter irony, Tau is the subject of allegations of serious sexual misconduct, currently being investigated by the police.
Without the assistance of Netanyahu who negotiated personally with Tau to join Smotrich’s list in return for the creation of the Jewish Identity Authority, there would be no chance that Maoz would have made it into the Knesset. According to Channel 12’s religious affairs correspondent Yair Sherki, the actual electoral support for Noam is as little as 5,000-10,000 votes representing less than 0.5% of the Israeli electorate.
Commissar for Jewish identity
What does Maoz mean when he refers to Jewish identity? Of course, there are elements of classic religious Zionism within his definition. The centrality of the Torah, the holiness of the land and the state of Israel as the harbinger of messianic times. However, it does not end there. As the representative of his mentor and teacher, Tau, the culture wars against modernity and in particular, what they would define as post-modernism are key to the survival of Israel’s Jewish identity, indeed of the survival of Israel itself. There are strong conspiratorial undertones to the rhetoric where every sign of societal progress with respect to feminism and LGBTQ+ rights are painted in terms of an attempt to undermine Israel as a Jewish state.
Noam’s political objectives fit right alongside the conservative (and some might say ultra-conservative) politics of the Right that frames the culture wars as a global fight between healthy, traditional and natural family values in the face of a neo-Marxist onslaught undermining Western civilization itself.
One of the key aims of the new authority is to monitor and highlight any anti-Jewish (code for progressive) content being used inside schools across Israel. In effect, Maoz sees himself as an oversight of the Education Ministry itself, which has been the target of heavy criticism over the years from Tau, with constant allegations that the system has been infiltrated by hostile forces promoting woke culture within Israel’s schools.
In an article I wrote earlier this year for Fathom, I noted reports that as far back as 2019, Maoz made clear that his plans included the use of secretive state security apparatus and technology to monitor what is happening in schools. If any of these plans come to fruition, it will be a dark step. The idea that the Prime Minister’s office will house an authority to police the content within Israeli schools would have been hard to imagine just a year ago, but when you wonder why the Israeli public responded so vigorously to the changes the government is proposing it is worth remembering that the comments made by Maoz against the LGBTQ+ community, literally days after the elections, were the start of a series of provocative remarks. It is not hard to see why the impression is not just of legal reform, but the use of government power to enforce an extreme and radical religious ideology.
Netanyahu empowers religious coercion and illiberal values
I am a huge believer that Jewish identity needs to be a major foundation upon which Israel can flourish. It is also my firm belief that this cannot be dictated in any way from the top down and using the law to enforce or promote dogma. The religious community is substantially more diverse than Maoz and Smotrich would have you believe. Maoz’s attempts to leverage his tiny following within Israeli society to restrict Jewish identity to the ideology of Tau will only push people away from it.
The Prime Minister tells the world in English that Israel is a bastion of rights for women and LGBTQ+, but within his own office, he is empowering radical forces seeking exactly the opposite. Not only is this out of step with Israeli society, but it is out of step with large parts of Israel’s religious community.
The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.