A ‘Change Government?’ Not for Religion and State

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There are many urgent things on the new government's desk - will they have the ability to tackle questions on religion and state?

Flash 90

The formation of the new government stirred up grave fears in the ultra-Orthodox sector, some among the National-Religious, and noisy protests by the Haredi members of the Knesset, fueled mainly by their anxiety about reforms in matters of religion and state.

Now that the coalition agreements have been publicized, it is quite clear that these groups have nothing to fear. To understand the limits of any possible changes that the new government may make on this front, we would do well to study the successes and failures of the recent coalitions that did not include the ultra-Orthodox parties: the previous Bennett-Lapid government, with Netanyahu as prime minister (2013–2015), and the second Sharon government (2003–2005).

Let’s begin with what should be obvious: Yesh Atid’s coalition agreements with several parties include a commitment to introduce public transportation on Shabbat, to repeal the Supermarkets Law (which made it difficult for local municipalities to allow grocery stores to open on Shabbat), and to institute civil marriage. But there is no real chance that any of this will come to pass. The coalition agreement that binds all the parties is an agreement put together by Yamina and Yesh Atid, and it explicitly states that the status quo on Shabbat and marriage and divorce will be maintained.

Furthermore, despite all the declarations and intentions, the previous governments that did not include the ultra-Orthodox parties failed to make a real impact on matters of religion and state. Even the major reform of 2003, which included the dismantling of the Religious Services Ministry, with its various agencies parceled out among the other ministries, was a purely declarative act aimed at eliminating this ultra-Orthodox territory in the government. In practice, the “reform” affected no significant change in the area of religious services. What is more, shortly after Ehud Olmert formed a new government in 2006, this “dead” ministry rose from the ashes and gradually regained all its powers.

The impact of the Netanyahu government formed in 2013 on matters of religion and state was similar. It is true that Naftali Bennett, who held the religious services portfolio, announced at a press conference that he was planning a revolution in religious services, including comprehensive reform of kashrut supervision and the merger of religious councils, but none of that ever happened. Under pressure from MK Elazar Stern, that government, shortly before it fell, decided that local rabbis should be empowered to perform conversions. But the moment the next government, which included the ultra-Orthodox parties, took office, the decision evaporated into thin air. The only significant change that remained was the legislation permitting couples to register for marriage with any religious council, and not only that in their place of residence.

THE LESSON the new government can learn from this history, is that if it wants to introduce major changes in matters of religion and state, it will have to institute fundamental structural reform and anchor it in primary legislation so that it will be difficult to rescind. In addition, it needs to focus on aspects related specifically to the provision of religious services, and not those that many in the religiously observant sector perceive as a threat to the Jewish character of the state, and that Yamina and New Hope would find difficult to swallow.

One reform in this category is included in the coalition agreement between Yamina and Yesh Atid: legislation permitting commercial establishments to receive kashrut certification from any local rabbi in Israel. This reform is important not only for moving religious services a step ahead, but also to reduce the cost of living (by abolishing the monopoly and creating competition in this market). But as they say, don’t hold your breath. In 2013 as well, Bennett announced a kashrut reform that never went anywhere.

Another needed reform (unfortunately not mentioned in the coalition agreements) is the dismantling of the religious councils and the transfer of their functions to a department of the local authority or municipality. Today the religious councils serve almost entirely as an arm of the religious services minister. This means that these services are centralized and reflect the minister’s political interests and needs rather than those of the residents. As a result, the religious councils have turned into a breeding ground for jobs, mainly for the Shas Party. Transferring them to the local authorities would put religious services back in the hands of the public that makes use of them, leading to greater economic efficiency and enhanced local democracy. For now, however, it seems that Yamina prefers not to give up the power rooted in its new-found control of the religious councils, and has no interest in modifying the current legal situation.

In any case, it is clear that changes in these areas are not instituted by the Knesset, but rise to the surface from the grass roots. The last decade has seen the appearance of various private initiatives offering alternatives to the religious establishment with regard to kashrut, burial, conversion, marriage and even divorce. Some of them come very close to the boundary of what is legal, and most lack institutional recognition. In any case, over the years, the gulf between the public’s needs and demands and the arrangements and laws in matters of religion and state grows wider and deeper. The “change government” would be well advised to make every attempt to build bridges, however few, over this gulf.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post