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Israel’s far-right government explained

Netanyahu’s new governing coalition represents a blow to the cause of religious pluralism in Israel and is likely to alienate millions of Diaspora Jews

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

The coalition agreements submitted to the Knesset on Wednesday represent a devastating blow to the cause of religious pluralism in Israel and are bound to alienate millions of Diaspora Jews.

If implemented, they would dramatically reduce the number of people eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return; end recognition of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts; and ban Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, from the main prayer plaza at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Within the framework of these agreements, the ruling Likud has committed to transferring billions of shekels to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, educational institutions and causes.

The agreements also call for allocating hundreds of millions of shekels to activities – under the category of “strengthening Jewish identity” – aimed at turning non-observant Israelis onto Orthodoxy.

Although not binding by law, these agreements are a declaration of intent by the new government and reflect the total submission of Likud to demands by its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. If implemented, they would roll back all the advances made in promoting religious pluralism in Israel in recent years, while blocking any options for reform in the future.

The coalition agreement stipulates that the Law of Return, which governs eligibility for citizenship in Israel, will be amended in order to “prevent assimilation” – a reference to the fact that non-Jews who are married to Jews or the descendants of Jews have the right to make aliyah and obtain automatic citizenship and the resulting fear that they will intermarry with Jewish-Israelis. The agreement does not specify exactly how the law will be amended but says that a special committee comprised of representatives of all the coalition parties will be given 60 days to draft the changes.

Concerned that too many immigrants to Israel do not fulfill the halakhic definition of Jewish – that is, they are not born to Jewish mothers – the religious parties have long been demanding the cancellation of the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return. This clause allows any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship on the spot. If such a change is introduced, an estimated 3 million people around the world – about two-thirds of them in North America – would lose their right to aliyah.

The coalition agreement also stipulates that the government will advance legislation that gives the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel. According to the agreement, only Orthodox conversions approved by the Rabbinate-controlled system will be recognized by the state for citizenship purposes. In March 2021, the High Court of Justice handed down a landmark ruling that recognized non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for the purpose of citizenship. In a separate case in 2016, the High Court ruled – despite strong opposition by the Rabbinate – that temporary residents converted by private ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts were also eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

Based on these precedents, the Jerusalem District Court ruled several months ago that temporary residents converted through the Modern Orthodox Giyur Kehalacha program were also eligible. The new law will override these court decisions, ending recognition of any conversions not performed through the Rabbinate-controlled system. Conversion performed outside Israel, by contrast, will continue to be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return. That means that Jews by choice converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis abroad will continue to be eligible for aliyah and citizenship.

According to the coalition agreement, the Chief Rabbinate will be authorized to determine what constitutes “local custom” at the Western Wall. Because the Chief Rabbinate does not approve of anything but strictly Orthodox prayer services at the main gender-segregated plaza at the Jewish holy site, this means that Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, will be required to move their monthly service elsewhere. At Women of the Wall services, women often wear prayer shawls and phylacteries and sing out loud. A Jerusalem District Court ruling, handed down nearly 10 years ago, found that the Women of the Wall prayer service was in line with “local custom.” The coalition agreement suggests that the government will advance legislation, if necessary, to override that ruling.

The coalition agreement makes no mention of what will become of the egalitarian prayer space located at the southern expanse of the Western Wall. Under the Western Wall deal, approved by the government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in early 2016, this space was meant to be expanded and renovated for the benefit of the non-Orthodox movements. Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, however, Netanyahu withdrew from the deal a year-and-a-half later. The government in power for the past year and a half had talked about reviving the deal but never followed through.

The following are some of the other key religious initiatives and changes included in the coalition agreements:

• The kashrut reform passed by the previous government, which was designed to create competition in certification and thereby lower costs, will be annulled. In its place, a new law will be passed that hands control of the kashrut certification system back to the Chief Rabbinate.

• A reform passed by the previous government, which effectively broke the monopoly of a special rabbinical council over cellphone use in the ultra-Orthodox community, will be annulled.

• A new Basic Law will be passed stipulating that Torah study is a basic right, thereby allowing even greater numbers of ultra-Orthodox men to avoid military service.

• A law will be passed preventing visitors from bringing chametz (food made with leavening agents) into hospitals during the Passover holiday.

• A law will be passed expanding the powers of the rabbinical courts to adjudicate on a wide range of civil matters – and not only family disputes.

• The government will encourage young Haredi men and women to visit Israel on Birthright and Masa – the two most popular Israel experience programs for Diaspora Jews – by allocating at least 30-million-shekels for this purpose.

• The government will amend the law against incitement to racism to include incitement against the ultra-Orthodox community.

• The government will provide immigrants from the Bnei Menashe community in northeastern India with the same benefits provided to immigrants from Ethiopia. The Bnei Menashe claim descent from one of the ancient “lost tribes.”

• The government will expand financial support for Chabad, the Orthodox outreach movement, and its activities around the world.

• The government will act to promote cultural institutions, festivals and art, music and theater schools that serve the Orthodox community.

• Government stipends for full-time students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and kollels will increase.

• Likud will undertake to investigate complaints by the ultra-Orthodox parties that Israel is losing it Jewish character because of the many businesses that are open on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays.

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