Advocates for Religious Pluralism in Israel Buoyed by Election Results

Yesh Atid's Surprising Popularity May Help Bring Changes

Cause for Celebration: Secular Israelis and Reform Jews proclaim ‘Jerusalem is not Tehran’ in a 2010 protest in Jerusalem.
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Cause for Celebration: Secular Israelis and Reform Jews proclaim ‘Jerusalem is not Tehran’ in a 2010 protest in Jerusalem.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 03, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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Proponents of religious pluralism in Israel are in a jubilant mood these days, saying that the surprise results of the January 22 elections may lead to some of the momentous changes they have been seeking.

When the Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) party emerged as the second-largest faction, many saw it as a long-overdue message from the electorate that Israel’s Orthodox-favoring religious status quo needs to change. In a political culture normally dominated by foreign policy, it is rare to see the triumph of a party so focused on domestic issues.

Yesh Atid’s central plank is drafting Haredim to the army. But party leader Yair Lapid has also committed himself to do “everything in my power” to bring about civil marriage and to enable Reform and Conservative Judaism to receive significant state budgets and perform conversions.

Wall Flower: A woman prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
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Wall Flower: A woman prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

His unexpected success, winning 19 Knesset seats and coming in just second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu coalition, turned Israeli politics on its head. Usually, the key coalition force that the ruling party needs to arrive at a governing majority consists of Haredi politicians from Shas and United Torah Judaism with their sectarian agenda; this time it is the secular-led Yesh Atid with its liberalizing agenda. Whereas the religious parties have been able to use this power to demand authority for their Orthodox vision of Judaism, Lapid could now present himself as a strong counterweight to their positions.

“I definitely see an opportunity for change, as the balance on issues of religion has changed,”said Mickey Gitzin, a pro-pluralism activist who was deputy director of the election campaign for the left-wing Meretz party. “Yair Lapid has taken away the balancing position of Shas. This buys an opportunity.”

Lapid’s victory was not the only boost for pluralism advocates. Former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has adopted a strong religious equality emphasis in recent months, and her new party won six seats. The 15-seat Labor Party’s domestic agenda, which includes pluralism, is more prominent than in the past, with the party paying less attention to the peace process. And Meretz, which wants a separation between religion and state, doubled its Knesset representation to six seats.


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