Israeli fears a decline in the ‘Jewish State’ project

Adnan Abu Amer 

Middle East Monitor  /  December 13, 2021

Six months after the commencement of the new Israeli government and, despite it being a right-wing government, religious circles within the occupying state began describing it as having abandoned the “Jewishness” of the State in favour of the left and centre, especially in terms of religious issues and Jewish law, which religious Zionism and rabbis have been advocating.

Recent days have witnessed a remarkable and unprecedented phenomenon, where senior rabbis have signed a notice denouncing reforms advocated by Naftali Bennett ’s government on issues related to Jewish law. This was done after a secret meeting that was held at one of the rabbi’s houses. The meeting included a showing of videos of members of the Knesset from the government coalition, and explanations for bills contrary to Jewish law.

Although the current government is of a right-wing character and adopts views no less aggressive towards the Palestinians than the previous government, it has begun to receive harsh criticism from the religious movement accusing it of seeking to separate religion from the State, as well as abandoning Jewish Law.

This initiative was led by seventeen senior rabbis in religious Zionism, who signed an extraordinary letter (public notice) calling, for the first time, on the Israeli public to come out and protest against the reforms promoted by the government regarding issues of Jewish law. The notice also included denunciation of a series of laws that threaten the essence of the Jewish state, and change its Jewish identity. This, according to the notice, requires the Israeli public to unite and protest against the attempt to make Israel a State for all its citizens, stressing it should only be for Jews, and for Jews only, which means preparing for the expulsion of others from it!

Among the signatories to the notice were Haim Druckman Eliyahu, Rabbi of Safed, Micah Halevi, Rabbi of Petah Tikva, Rabbis Eliakim Libanin, Dov Lior, Haim Steiner, David Chai HaCohen and Yehoshua Shapira. They signed the notice after having met in Druckman’s home and listened to a comprehensive review of the government’s steps towards Jewish law issues, including public transportation that will operate on the Sabbath in public places.

This petition was preceded by interviews with some members of the Knesset in the coalition, who spoke about their future intentions, and interpretations of other bills the government is promoting. After listening to them, a notice drafted by the rabbis was signed. In the notice, the rabbis said that they want a Jewish State, not a State for all its citizens, claiming that the government is promoting a series of laws that threaten the essence of the State, and change its identity, which will be causing protests against these attempts.

This is the first step taken by the rabbis against Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s government; however, it has preceded a large right-wing demonstration that is expected to take place in Rabin Square in the centre of Tel Aviv soon. The Jewish public was called upon to participate in a protest titled “We need a government that preserves a Jewish and democratic State, independent of the “enemy” and concerned with Jewish identity”.

Protests of the rabbis are mainly against reforms the government has promoted recently in a number of areas. These reforms include the approval of the budget, the Knesset arrangements law and the Jewish reforms, which were approved recently and, according to which the chief rabbinic will stop giving halal food to business owners, as it is going to get regulated, and replaced by private bodies.

In the area of ​​conversion, Religious Affairs Minister, Matan Kahane, intends to soon promote a proposal that would give authority to local rabbis for conversion, thus expropriating the rabbinic’s exclusive authority in this area, with the aim of adding thousands of non-religious people to the Jewish people.

Another aspect of the Jewish religious protests against the current Israeli government was the disclosure of a recording of a closed secret session that brought together the two biblical religious movements, Shas and Torah Judaism, where their leaders, Rabbis Aryeh Deri, Moshe Gafni and Jacob Litzman spoke forcefully against the Israeli ministers, and announced the organizing of a “common struggle” to topple the current government, not on political grounds, but on purely religious grounds.

Part of what was leaked about this closed secret session was the leaders saying that “the current Israeli government is more dangerous than the Iranian nuclear bomb.” Those in the meeting discussed what they considered to be a common struggle against government procedure regarding religion and the state. They issued harsh statements against members of the government and its ministers.

Despite the danger that the Iranian nuclear file poses to Israel, which Israel describes as “existential,” opponents of the government, among right-wing rabbis and clergy, believe that the current steps to change the country’s Jewish identity are more dangerous than the Iranian nuclear file, in light of the tendencies shown by the ministers to separate religion and state. They claim that these are issues that require actions to stop and curb them, because they concern far-reaching matters related to the future of the State. In this context, those assembling criticized the Knesset members of the religious parties who speak with members of the government coalition, as if they are required to boycott them!

This secret session represented the second protest against the current government. Head of the Torah Judaism party, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, one of the leaders of the yeshivas, announced that “a cultural war is being waged by religious Zionism with all its might”, which calls for saying the harshest words and doing the most difficult things. Therefore, “we need to fight with all our might, and take off the gloves, because it is a war between Jewish life and death.”

Gaffney had previously accused the government of allowing secular schools to operate in Israel, celebrating Islamic and Christian holidays, and stopping the studying of the Bible. So far, many Knesset members from religious parties presented various proposals to fight the government.

Meanwhile, MK Uri Maclev called on what he described as the religious masses to unite in this struggle, as it is not a pure struggle for the ultra-Orthodox but rather a struggle that requires the mobilization of all Jewish religious forces for a broad popular struggle; one that raises the cries of what he described as the Jewish people in Israel and the diaspora, and stands as one bloc against the great destruction represented by the current government!

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza