Israel’s government crumbles over ‘Jewish identity’

MK Idit Silman

Jonathan Ofir 

Mondoweiss  /  April 7, 2022

Idit Silman has quit the Israeli government saying she “will not abet the harming of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.” Her issue? Allowing leavened bread in hospitals.

Yesterday, Israeli premier Naftali Bennett’s razor-thin coalition majority crumbled as coalition whip Idit Silman, also from Bennett’s Yamina (“Rightwards”) party, defected, leaving the coalition at 60 members out of the 120-seat parliament.

“I can no longer bear the damage to values ​​and causes that are essential and right”, Silman wrote in her resignation letter to Bennett, adding that she “will not abet the harming of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

But what is the danger to “Jewish identity” from a government headed by the most right-wing, Jewish supremacist and religious fundamentalist premier in Israel’s history?

We are being told it’s about matzos. Health minister Nitzan Horowitz (from the left-Zionist Meretz party) has instructed hospitals to allow patients to have leavened bread with them – in accordance with a High Court of Justice ruling on the matter. Leavened bread is not kosher during the Jewish holiday of Passover, and that was the source of the recent spat between Silman and Horowitz, where Silman said the instruction crossed a “red line”, although even Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana (also from Yamina) pointed out that the order has been in place since 2020 and that “nothing has changed”. That’s apparently how the cookie crumbles in Israel – oh, sorry – the matzo. 

There is of course more going on behind the scenes. Since the government, based on the singular value of “just not Netanyahu,” was sworn in last June, Netanyahu’s Likud has been waiting for an opportunity to poach lawmakers to their side. They have been mocking the government for joining forces with Palestinian lawmakers (although the United Arab List is a conservative Islamist party, and although Netanyahu came up with the idea of joining up with them first). They campaigned for Silman’s defection and camped in front of her house. They knew her weakness.

Silman is a Jewish religious fundamentalist who donates together with her husband Shmulik to the anti-abortion organization Efrat. Shmulik is a Netanyahu supporter who has expressed support for raising funds to assist Netanyahu in his ongoing corruption trials, and he has been calling upon his wife Idit to “return home” – to the Likud, that is, or the “national camp.” On a radio show preceding her defection announcement by a day Shmulik announced:

If Idit returns home, she would grab a great position at the Health Ministry. Everything’s good. Nothing has happened, and it’s not the end of the world.

Shmulik Silman has been holding talks with opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich from the extreme-right Religious Zionism (which brought in the Jewish Power Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir into the parliament), and it seems Smotrich has facilitated a deal with Likud whereby Idit Silman would be guaranteed the 10th slot in a prospective Likud government and a ministerial position as health minister.

It’s still unclear at this point how Netanyahu could form a coalition, with so many rivals also in the right-wing. For now, Likud’s clear bloc is still only at 52. If Silman joins Likud it is 53. There’s another Yamina member, Amichai Chikli, who has refused to back the government since the start – if he moves to Likud or to another Likud bloc party, he could also strengthen it. But then the Likud bloc would still need another 7 seats. It looks somewhat unlikely, but the current coalition is also a rather unlikely one. In the past, Bennett has swayed and not ruled out a government with Netanyahu.

What seems quite clear, is that Likud has now spotted a path towards revival. Netanyahu was elated at Silman’s defection. In a video statement he called it a “courageous move”, adding:

I was very moved to hear MK Idit Silman’s statement, and I congratulate her on behalf of the masses of the people of Israel who yearned for this moment… I call on all those elected by the national camp to join Idit and come home, you will be received with complete respect and with open arms.

It seems likely that Israel will be thrown into new elections – all it needs is a no-confidence vote, which may pass since the nominal support for the government is currently at a minority. The two year period preceding this apparently short-lived government has seen four elections in less than two years. If Netanyahu becomes desperate enough, he might even try to entice the United Arab List again, which might become kosher once again, even kosher for Passover.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark