One of the weaknesses of the coalition-based system of government in Israel is that parties representing very small segments of the electorate are sometimes able to exert inordinate amounts of influence. Such is the case of the two religious parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – who now sit as part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and are able to advance policies at odds with the vast majority of Israelis.
In the Israeli election earlier this year, Shas took 5.73 per cent of the vote, winning seven of the 120 Knesset seats. United Torah Judaism took 5.03 per cent of the vote and six seats.
For both parties, this was a drop in support from the 2013 election when Shas took 8.75 per cent of the vote resulting in 11 seats and United Torah Judaism was supported by 5.16 per cent of voters giving them seven seats.
Combined, the two religious parties dropped to 10.76 per cent of the vote and 13 seats from 13.91 per cent of the vote and 18 seats in 2013.
The two parties and their 18 seats were not part of the Netanyahu coalition following the 2013 election, which meant Israel was finally able to begin making some small steps toward Jewish religious pluralism in the world’s only Jewish state.
Religious affairs in Israel – including such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion – are almost entirely controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, an institution controlled by haredi Orthodox rabbis (and allied, if not officially, then at least nominally, to the two religious parties). Even many modern Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against the hegemony of the Chief Rabbinate on religious affairs in Israel.
The small steps made by the last government toward Jewish religious pluralism in Israel seemed popular with Israelis. So popular that the religious parties that opposed any reforms lost a significant amount of votes and seats in the 2015 election.
But – and it’s a big but – Netanyahu desperately needed every seat he could get in forming what turned out to be his very narrow coalition after this year’s election. So the religious parties, with fewer votes and fewer seats, are back at the seat of power rolling back the small steps toward greater Jewish religious pluralism.
And, perhaps, even worse than the disproportionate amount of power being wielded by the religious parties is the outlook expressed by (at least some of) their MKs.
Earlier this month, David Azoulay, the religious services minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and a member of Shas, said that Reform Jews cannot be considered Jews.
“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” Azoulay said, July 7, on Army Radio. The interview was given just two days after the Cabinet – under the demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism – reversed the steps taken toward conversion reform by the previous Netanyahu government.
There was, of course, a backlash – in the Diaspora and in Israel – over the comments of the religious services minister. Even Netanyahu rejected the comments – although he would not accede to demands that he fire Azoulay from cabinet, which likely would have caused his narrow coalition to collapse.
The next day, Azoulay issued a clarification in a Knesset speech, saying that Reform Jews, while sinners, are still Jewish.
“Of course, all Jews, even though they sin, are Jews,” he said. “At the same time, it is with great pain that we view the damage caused by Reform Judaism, which has brought the greatest danger to the Jewish people, the danger of assimilation.”
The contemporary Jewish world is pluralistic. Some of us are very religious, others not at all. In our communities, we must respect all Jewish denominations – haredi Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform – as equally legitimate. That is why rabbis from across the denominational spectrum represented in Ottawa have a voice in our rotating From the Pulpit column.
As the homeland of all Jewish people, I believe Israel needs to respect the legitimacy of each of the denominations and move toward Jewish religious pluralism.