What do Israelis want?
That is a huge and unanswerable question. To begin with, beyond the basics, the answer would be different for every single Israeli, just as it would be for anyone else. Security, love, health, family, happiness, right right right. But each person would define every single one of those things slightly differently, and order them differently too.
So in some ways, trying to know what Israelis want — what anybody wants — is a chump’s game.
But there are ways to target questions, to break them down into smaller chunks. To ask specific questions, about such issues as civil marriage, conversion, and the relationship between religion and state. (Keep in mind that the relationship between religion, in the person of the chief rabbi, and the government is entirely different in Israel than it is in the United States. It’s official there; it’s constitutionally separate here.)
One way to do that is to poll people.
That’s one of the things the Israeli nonprofit Hiddush does there. It also advocates for putting the results of those polls — a large and growing desire for a change in the relationship between synagogue and state, its leaders say — into practice. That advocacy work also is what the U.S.-based support organization called Ruach Hiddush does here.
(Hiddush means renewal, and Ruach Hiddush is the spirit of renewal.)
On the weekend of September 13 to 15, Uri Regev, the Israeli lawyer and HUC Jerusalem-ordained rabbi who heads Hiddush, will speak at Temple Emeth and Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. (See box.) His talks will focus both on the coming elections in Israel, which center around questions of pluralism and the role of religion, and on the relationship between religion and state more broadly.
Politics in Israel are particularly volatile right now, Rabbi Regev said. There will be a hugely important election there on September 17, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries again to put together a government, as he could not after the April election. (The parliamentary system is not particularly intuitive to Americans. We know.)
His talk “is just a few days before the elections,” Rabbi Regev said. Hiddush’s polling shows that the results “might indicate a dramatic shift in direction regarding the makeup of the coalition government, particularly in the area of religion and state, and by extension in the strain that has been undermining the relationship between Israeli and American Jews recently.”
Still, he warned, “whether this change actually will materialize — well, it’s ain’t over till it’s over. I still remember the elections in 1996, when I flew out from Israel with the exit polls indicating that Shimon Peres would be the prime minister. And I landed in New York and heard that it would be Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The actual elections may introduce twists and turns that are not always detected by the pollsters.”
Still, he said, “based on all the surveys that have been done since April, as a result of the unexpected and dramatic initiative launched by Avigdor Liberman, of all people, this election might change the course of history in Israel.”
Avigdor Liberman is a Knesset member, the Russian-born right-wing head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Had he chosen to join Netanyahu’s government, that would have been that. There would be no elections looming now. But he did not. Netanyahu remained one seat — Liberman’s seat — from victory, and Liberman was kingmaker.
His issue — his demand — was that charedi men must be drafted into the IDF. Netanyahu could not give in; if he had, he would have lost much of his support.
So the September elections will be a rematch.
“What we see now, with numerous polls that have been taken by leading mainstream pollsters and media outlets, is that the pattern is clear. Neither the Likud” — Netanyahu’s party — “nor Kachol ve Lavan” — the opposition Blue and White party — “has command of a majority of the Knesset, and so neither of them would be capable of forming a government coalition without one of two things happening.
“Either Liberman will lend his support, or let’s say the Likud is successful in bringing about the defection of some Knesset member.” But that’s highly unlikely, Rabbi Regev said, because the political world is so polarized. “There’s tremendous opposition to the idea of” more liberal parties “going to bed with the right-wing charedi parties. There is so much bad blood, and so much principled objection.
“The most likely political scenario is that Likud, Kachol ve Lavan, and Yisrael Beiteinu come together to form a wide unity coalition. That’s the only sensible configuration when you look at the numbers that actually makes sense.”
“Liberman’s condition is keeping the charedim and what he calls messianic religionists out,” Rabbi Regev said.
“We have polled public opinion about the election six times since January,” he continued; the people polled were a representative sample of adult Jewish Israelis. Hiddush asked, “What would you like to see after the elections, and we gave two options, a narrow coalition dependent on the charedi parties and maintaining the status quo on religious matters, or a wider civic coalition. We asked the question in two forms; one option said it doesn’t depend on charedi parties and the other said it didn’t include the charedi parties. Sixty-eight percent opted for the second option; it included 60 percent of Likud voters and 95 percent of Kachol ve Lavan voters.
“We asked again, in different ways, if the party that is aligned with your general political outlook on security and the economy were to commit to assertively pursue religious freedom and equality in shouldering the civic burden, are you more likely to vote for that party, or less likely to vote for it?
“What we see consistently is that the party that will pursue these issues assertively is going to get greater support.
“We don’t expect miracles,” he added. “We don’t expect people on the extreme left to vote for an extremely right-wing party,” or vice versa. “But people are more likely to vote for a party that makes that commitment.”
And that’s what Liberman has been doing, and that’s because, Rabbi Regev said, “clearly Liberman has tapped into a real sentiment that characterizes where the majority of Israeli Jews are.
“So whether it’s because Liberman read our polling from January onwards — which I’m sure he does — or because he ran his own polls — which I’m also sure he does — he came to the same conclusion we did.”
In fact, he said, Liberman has been expanding his reach. “It think it is fair to say and widely known that Liberman singlehandedly kept Netanyahu from being able to form a government, and he is being assaulted for that, accused of being a fraud — he’s a right winger preventing the success of a right-wing party — and one would expect that would result in less support for him.
“But what’s happened is the exact opposite. Instead of being at the five seats he was at before, the polls show that now he is between eight and 11. There are probably 20 to 25 surveys, and in one of them he is projected to have somewhere between eight and 11 seats.”
It’s been a progression since the April election, Rabbi Regev said. “Yes, he mentioned drafting yeshiva students as a key in his mission statement, but that was one of four lines. He is now totally focused on religious freedom, anti-Torah state, and anti-theocracy. That is his main line. He now is repeatedly showing video clips that verge on gross attacks on the notion of a Torah state.”
In other words, Rabbi Regev said, Liberman “read the sentiments of the public right, and he is being rewarded for it.”
And that, he said, “is throwing the Israeli political scene into a frenzy.”
That’s some of what he’ll discuss in Teaneck. He’ll discuss the issues of synagogue and state both specifically and generally; he’ll focus on how polls consistently show that Israelis value pluralism, but their politicians “sell out their values and core democratic principles for the porridge of votes. But now we see for the first time in many years the potential for rerouting and redirecting that equation.”
Rabbi Michael Chernick of Teaneck is Orthodox; he was ordained at Yeshiva University. He also taught at Hebrew Union College, which is Reform; he finds his way around the Jewish world with great ease. He and his wife, the artist Miriam Stern, spend a great deal of time in Israel every year.
Rabbi Chernick made the shidduch that will get Rabbi Regev to Teaneck next weekend.
He’s one of nine members of Ruach Hiddush’s executive committee, and one of the two Orthodox ones. (The other Orthodox rabbi is Asher Lopatin, who spent many years heading Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale.) “We have rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, and one from Renewal,” Rabbi Chernick said. Several of them are women.
“Both Hiddush and Ruach Hiddush support a vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. Rabbi Regev and Rabbi Marc Angel, the Orthodox rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, co-wrote Hiddush’s vision statement, which elaborates that idea. “The position is that a lot of the intertwining of religion and state should be separated,” Rabbi Chernick said. “That would solve a number of problems, and many people would like that.” Polls show that.
“But one thing is very clear,” according to polls and the vision statement, he said. “Jewish education for Jewish children is an absolute must. They should be familiar with Jewish traditions and texts. At least at the public institutional level, there must be respect for kashrut and Shabbat and holy days. Israelis want the state of Israel to be Jewish, and to have that” — the Jewishness, that is — “is very clearly in the forefront.
“And Hiddush also understands that the population is less and less interested in the toxic intertwining of religion and state,” he added. “One of the polls indicated that 67 percent of the population was for civil marriage.” Today, only religious marriages, done under the aegis of the state and always by Orthodox rabbis if they are performed in Israel, are recognized. “That’s huge!”
He cares about the state loosening its hold on the forced practice of Judaism precisely because he is an Orthodox rabbi, not despite it, Rabbi Chernick said.
“If you ask the average secular Israeli how they feel about Judaism as it exists formally in the state of Israel, you learn that they are not particularly happy about Judaism. You don’t want Jews unhappy about Judaism. That is number one.”
He can understand their unhappiness, although he does not share it. “As an Orthodox rabbi, I could have lived with the Orthodox monopoly if it hadn’t moved considerably to the right,” he said. “But the chief rabbinate has moved to the right. And certain kinds of practices have been forced on people in the public domain, and they are angry about it.
“For example, once upon a time it was up to the local townships or cities to decide what kinds of stores or businesses or entertainments could be open on Shabbat. Once the charedi parties managed to push the coalition to have that decision centralized in the Knesset, it is now determined nationally, not locally, so all of a sudden mom-and-pops that might have been open on Shabbat now theoretically should be fined if they are not closed.
“Although,” he added, “that law is more often observed in the breach. Tel Avivian cops have better things to do than ticket a mom and pop. But that undermines the rule of law, if you pass a law that no one will observe. That also is a problem.
“And there has been a delegitimization of the Orthodox left and center, so you have people in that community who are being treated, in terms of their legitimacy, no better than the Conservative and Reform movements, who have been dealt with that way forever. There is a certain amount of sub-rosa rebellion going on there.”
There is movement in all directions, Rabbi Chernick said. “The Israeli population is moving back to tradition, generally speaking. Some people see going back to tradition as going back to state-sponsored Orthodoxy; while they are not 100 percent shomer Shabbat, they think that that’s what they should be aiming toward.
“And there are many more Israelis who call themselves traditional, but they say they are distant from religion. That means that they will have a Friday night dinner, but then go out together, and there will be no halachic observance of anything related to Shabbat.
“Those people want a religious or spiritual experience, but not in an Orthodox form. So you do have an indigenous growth of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel. They have spontaneous grassroots developments, like secular yeshivot and the big kabbalat Shabbat on the beach in Tel Aviv, which ends before Shabbat begins.
“There are all kinds of interesting reclamations of tradition, where people will say ‘I am a traditional Jew’ but not meaning ‘I am Orthodox’ or even wanting to be Orthodox. ‘Traditional’ spans the range.
“It is clear that because the Israeli population is traditional, it wants a Jewish base for the state. Israelis are not ready to say ‘Let’s forget about this’ and ‘Let’s forget about that’ and ‘Let’s forget about the next thing. It is not looking to secularize the state.”
That brings Rabbi Chernick to Ruach Hiddush. “I am part of it because I want to support the work of Hiddush in Israel,” he said. “I want to support fellow modern Orthodox people and rabbis. I want Judaism to be something that has a smiling face.
“I want to support something that makes the average Israeli love Judaism, and I don’t think that state-sponsored Judaism is doing that.”
Who: Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush
What: Will speak three times in Teaneck
When: Friday, September 13, at services beginning at 8 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road
About what: “This Week’s Elections: Their Crucial Implications for Israelis, Israel, and World Jewry”
For more information: Go to emeth.org
When: Saturday, September 14, after services, at 12:45 p.m.
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Avenue
About what: “Israel’s Elections: Their Crucial Implications for Israelis, Israel, and World Jewry”
For more information and to register (registration not necessary; $5 donation in advance for dessert suggested): Go to cbsteaneck.org
When: Sunday, September 15, at 9:45 a.m.
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Avenue
About what: “Religion & The State of Israel: What do Israelis really think about the alliance of religion and the State in Israel, and what may we help to do about it?”
For more information: Go to cbsteaneck.org