Religion and state: Not on Israel’s campaign agenda

Ben Sales

A woman lays tefillin at the entrance to Tel Aviv's Carmel Market. Women of the Wall offered women in Tel Aviv the chance to put on a tallit or tefillin on Friday. (Ben Sales/JTA)

A woman lays tefillin at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Women of the Wall has protested the religious status quo in Israel, particularly laws blocking women from chanting Torah at the Kotel. (Ben Sales/JTA)

A flyer published in late February declared that liberal Jews — whether liberal Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or otherwise — account for more than 600,000 Israelis. That many votes, the flyer said, could account for 10 seats in Knesset, a substantial party.

The flyer’s message was clear: liberally religious Jews are a significant constituency in Israel whose concerns need to be addressed. After nearly seven decades in which Israel hasn’t allowed civil marriage or gay marriage, hasn’t provided proportionate funding to non-Orthodox movements and hasn’t recognized Reform or Conservative conversions, it’s time for a change.

The problem for advocates of religious pluralism is that change probably isn’t coming.

Substantial majorities of Israelis have long supported reforms to Israel’s religion-state status quo. A September poll by religious pluralism advocacy organization Hiddush found that two-thirds of Israelis back legalizing civil marriage while 64 percent support recognizing Conservative and Reform conversions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Despite their popularity, these reforms have been blocked by haredi Orthodox parties, which have served in most of Israel’s governing coalitions. Haredi politicians have historically been flexible on defense, diplomatic and economic policy in exchange for continuation of the religious status quo.

Israelis have let this deal happen time and again because religious issues aren’t that important to them. In polls when elections were called and again last week, Israelis said their top two issues in voting were Israel’s high cost of living and security. Religion and state didn’t register on either poll. Israelis feel they have more pressing concerns.

Pluralism advocates saw a window of opportunity after the 2013 elections, which saw Yesh Atid, a party committed to religious reform, come in second with 19 seats. Yesh Atid blocked haredi parties from the coalition, and enacted reforms that liberalized Orthodox conversion and included haredi youth in Israel’s mandatory draft. But bills to enact civil marriage and increase gay rights were blocked by Jewish Home, a religious Zionist party.

This year the picture is less rosy for pluralism advocates. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he intends to include the haredi parties in his coalition, and his opponent, Isaac Herzog, would have trouble forming a government without haredi support.

So while Israelis want civil marriage and conversion reform, as long as cost of living is high and wars are frequent, those issues may have to wait.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent.