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Matan Kahana, a Bennett ally, visits U.S. to promote religious reforms in Israel

In a country like Israel, where regional conflicts and diplomacy are always dominating the headlines, a ministry with seemingly less relevance has caught the attention of Israeli citizens and American Jewry alike.

The ministry for religious services, headed by Matan Kahana, a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s Yamina Party, has in recent months undergone a major shakeup to change the status quo that had existed for decades on religious issues that define the nature of the Jewish State.

Kahana, 49, is visiting the U.S. on a weeklong trip that is part of an effort to reach out to American Jewry about the government’s desire to reform Israel’s laws concerning conversion, kashrut and other religious practices that are supported by liberal Zionists and the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.

The alliance between Israel and Jews in the diaspora had deteriorated under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, primarily due to partisan maneuvers and a lack of tolerance over religious matters.

Kahana’s message is two-fold: Israel is the natural home for all denominations across the spectrum of Judaism while preserving its identity based on the halachah and Orthodox tradition.

“The state of Israel, in principle, is an Orthodox state,” Kahana said in an interview on Sunday, ahead of a meeting with leaders of the Orthodox Union. “At the same time, Israel is a place that respects the rights of all minority groups.”

He called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overhaul the system while the Haredi parties, who controlled the ministry and vetoed all reforms when they were part of the government, are not part of the current coalition government. “I am a conservative who believes in the process of evolutions, not revolutions,” he said. “And everyone understands that running too fast on these issues won’t be sustainable and lead to the collapse of the current government.”

Kahana, who describes himself as a close confidante and a longtime friend of the prime minister, said he insisted to be appointed to this position to heal the “societal rift that stems from the sensitive relations between religion and state.”

He argued that the once all-right effort on behalf of the Haredi and religious parties in Israel to maintain the status quo has been eroded by facts on the ground – the changes in society – and led to more polarization. “I think that precisely because I am observant and engaged in Western culture, I could serve as a bridge between the two sides to demonstrate our faith as a uniter, not a divider,” he said. “I deeply believe that Judaism is so wonderful that if we stop imposing it on people, it will be sought after.”

Since taking the helm of the ministry last June, Kahana placed women and academics in all of the country’s local religious councils that oversee religious facilities and services. His recent plans to end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over the kashrut supervision industry to create greater competition – which passed the Knesset last year – and his proposal to reform the state-sponsored process on Orthodox conversion has been met with fierce resistance by leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community.

A group of American and European Orthodox leaders recently visited Israel to lobby the government to shelve these plans that would change the status quo on religious issues.

“All my moves are intended to strengthen our Jewish identity,” Kahana maintained. He said he still believes the Orthodox community is an integral part of Israeli society and not a liability, adding that his proposals have earned the blessings of prominent religious zionist rabbis.

On his current trip, which is taking place while the Knesset is in recess, Kahana visited the Jewish community in Dallas, Texas, including a stop at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville — where a terrorist took hostage congregants and the rabbi during Shabbat prayer services in January. He also visited Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the Moise Safra Center and the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan on Saturday. On Sunday, Kahana visited the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad-Lubavitch in Queens, NY for prayer.

Kahana said that in his talks with Jewish groups, keen on seeing movement on religious matters, they understand that he started “a process of change” that will reset the unique relationship between Israel and American Jews.

He defended Bennett’s decision to shelve a plan to revive the 2017 Kotel deal, which designated protected space at the Western Wall for various streams of Jewish practice, amid strong opposition.

No change on the Israeli-Palestinian issue

Kahana said that while the prime minister has set a new tone for U.S.-Israeli relations, there will not be a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for the remainder of the government’s four-year term. He claimed to be a loyalist who has Bennett’s back to preserve their long-held right-wing, nationalist beliefs in the coalition government that consists of all parties on the center-left. The two served together in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando uni in the early 90s. Kahana entered the Knesset as number seven on Bennett’s Yamina list in 2019.

Israel's minister of religious services Matan Kahana with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Matan Kahana, minister of religious service, sat the Knesset in Jerusalem Image by Danny Shem-Tov - Knesset Spokesperson's Office

“This government was created with the clear understanding, set by agreement, that there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s not even relevant.” Kahana insisted that this will continue even if and when Bennett cedes power to Yair Lapid, who represents a more liberal swath of Israeli voters, after two years.

Kahana suggested that Bennett underwent the natural process of taking on the responsibilities as his country’s leader with seriousness while “not abandoning his ideological views by one iota. “We are a right-wing party in a unity government that was intended to save Israel from a chaotic political stalemate and the widening of a societal rift,” he said. “But we have also managed to preserve our right-wing principles.”

He repeated a line once echoed by Bennett that the current government is “10 degrees more right-wing” than the ones headed by Netanyahu. “We are even 40 degrees more right-wing,” he added while listing Netanyahu concessions to the Palestinians.

Lapid hosted on Sunday a historic summit at the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev with his counterparts from the U.S., United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who met with Israel’s leadership on Sunday, reiterated the Biden’s administration’s stance against settlement expansion and support of a two-state solution. He also raised the plan to re-open the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, on top of Ukraine and Iran.

Kahana said that the government will continue to express its opposition to opening a consulate to serve the Palestinians in Israel’s capital.

He described the conference as a demonstration of Israel “taking a giant step forward” to advance the Abraham Accords, which was signed in 2020, under the leadership of Bennett and Lapid and unite the countries in the Middle East against its common enemies.

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