Netanyahu’s New Ministers Have Very Strict Ideas About Who Is a Jew

For years, there has been a growing gap between Israelis and American Jews when it comes to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. But today the issue threatening to divide the Jewish people is not about geopolitics or the occupation of the West Bank. It’s about Judaism itself: Jewish fundamentalists are now the dominant element in the Israeli governing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. They plan a hostile takeover of Jewish identity.

Several ministries have been created with a focus on Jewish identity. Each will be led almost exclusively by the members of parties representing the various strands of modern Jewish fundamentalism — parties that resist any form of modernism — as well as the elements of the Zionist Orthodoxy that are increasingly both ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox.

These parties are imposing on Israel a definition of Judaism that refuses to recognize the validity of the non-Orthodox streams, with which the majority of American Jews identify. They are even demanding a change in the most fundamental link between Israel and the Jewish diaspora: the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to Jews and their descendants. They have promised to make those with at least one Jewish grandparent and who are not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment ineligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.

In some ways, of course, these divisions are not new. The debate over who is a Jew has been part of Israeli discourse since the creation of the state. The rabbinate has long held control over family law. (Civil marriages are not conducted in Israel.) But this is the first time that one side has sought to assert itself so completely over Israel’s governance. It has the potential to estrange many non-Israeli Jews.

A religious schism within the Jewish people — fewer than 20 million worldwide — would mean that they would no longer have the sense of joint purpose that has sustained this persecuted people through millenniums. Jews are told that each Jew holds responsibility for Jews everywhere, that we must act for our brethren in peril. But with these new laws redefining who belongs, that religionwide sense of comity would cease to exist.

It is already causing angry responses in Israel. The appointment in the new government that caused the greatest backlash from the secular Israeli public is that of Avi Maoz, the sole Knesset representative of Noam, a tiny openly homophobic religious party, as a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office.

Noam was founded in 2019 by followers of Zvi Thau, a rabbi who is convinced of the existence of a progressive cabal whose sole aim is to erode Israel’s Jewish character through advancing L.G.B.T.Q. rights and gender equality. Mr. Netanyahu pressured the bloc led by the far right Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties to give Mr. Maoz and his party a place on their candidate list to consolidate his power.

According to the agreement signed by Mr. Maoz’s Noam and by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, Mr. Maoz is now in charge of a new authority for national Jewish identity, with a budget of a quarter of a billion shekels (about $70 million) over the next two years, and will gain control of the Education Ministry’s department for external educational programs.

In an interview this month with Olam Katan (Small World), a far-right weekly, Mr. Maoz explained why he is so interested in the department. “There are currently about 3,000 curriculums written by progressive, radical-left nongovernmental organizations funded by foreign organizations and the European Union,” he said. “Are they there to strengthen the Jewish state? Of course not. They want to make Israel a state like all the states. Who will make sure that they write programs for Jewish identity instead of plans for a state for all its citizens? That’s my job.”

Some of Israel’s largest and richest cities, including Tel Aviv-Jaffa, have announced they will not cooperate with the department under Mr. Maoz and, if necessary, will fund liberal education programs themselves.

In addition to Mr. Maoz’s appointment, Orit Strock, a member of the Religious Zionism party who lives in a small Jewish settler enclave in the Palestinian-majority city of Hebron in the West Bank, was tapped to run the new and dystopian-sounding Directorate of Jewish Identity. This will be part of a new Ministry of National Missions, which will control Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and is tasked with financing religious mission communities in Israel. These are groups of religious Zionist families that move together to disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country, in some cases in towns with mixed Jewish and Arab populations, to strengthen the Jewish communities there.

Mr. Netanyahu also committed in the coalition agreements to create the Ministry of Heritage, which will be helmed by the newly influential Jewish Power party. This ministry will be in charge of such matters as archaeology and conservation of historical sites. In a country where historical narratives are hotly contested, fundamentalist control in those fields is sure to drag more ancient battles into the present. Already archaeology is an area of conflict in Jerusalem, where settler groups finance digs in the City of David, near the Temple Mount and the Aqsa Mosque compound, highlighting the city’s Jewish past at the expense of other religions.

Moshe Gafni, head of United Torah Judaism party, chats with Israeli designate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a session at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem December 28, 2022.Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

Yet another new ministry, Jerusalem and Tradition, has been handed to the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party — another sign that the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, politicians who in the past sought to use their influence in government mainly to safeguard the interests of their insular communities are now broadening their ambitions toward wider Israeli society.

All of these parties — Noam, Jewish Power and United Torah Judaism — refuse to accept that Judaism in its contemporary form contains several streams of belief, practice and representation. This exclusionary approach sets these parties apart from more liberal Jewish groups and secular and modern Orthodox Israelis, as well as the overwhelming majority of American Jews and other Jewish communities around the world. It puts them on a collision course with liberal Jews in Israel and America and is bringing the global Jewish people closer to the brink of a religious schism than it has been in over three centuries, since the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi split the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Mr. Netanyahu is secular and would like to keep up the appearance of a liberal democrat, but half of his new coalition members are fundamentalist, and he needed their support to return to office and possibly to make expected changes to the legal system to help him avoid consequences from his ongoing trial for fraud and bribery (he has denied that he would benefit from any change in the law and has denied the charges against him). In statements and interviews in recent weeks, he has repeatedly insisted he will be in charge of the new government, but his partners are eager to make use of this unique opportunity for change.

The departing government, which was led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, included both right-wing and moderate religious politicians, as well as centrists, left-wingers and the conservative-Islamist Raam party. By and large, it refrained from changing the religious status quo. Over the past 18 months, when the Jewish fundamentalist parties were with Mr. Netanyahu in opposition, the level of vitriol in religious media and on religious social networks, against what they call the Progress, Reform Jews and hordes of Christians from Russia — a mash-up golem of enemies all purportedly bent on eroding Israel’s Jewish character — reached new heights. The Jewish fundamentalists, who billed their critics as traitorous leftists, are now in a position to control them through legal means.

Since the election on Nov. 1, much of the media coverage in Israel and abroad has been understandably devoted to the possible erosion of democracy in Israel, as well as the effect the new government will have on the condition of the Palestinians, both those who are Israeli citizens and the roughly five million Palestinians living under varying degrees of Israeli authority in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This is understandable, since the far-right ministers will have control over aspects of life in the occupied territories. For example, Jewish Power leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, an anti-Arab firebrand and a former member of a proscribed Jewish terrorist organization, will be the national security minister in the new government, in charge of Israel’s domestic police and the border police in the West Bank.

But while these threats to any prospect of peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and to the viability of Israeli democracy should remain the focus of attention, the acute threat to the inclusive nature of Judaism and Jewish identity in Israel should be of the highest concern as well to Jews in Israel, America and elsewhere around the world.

Anshel Pfeffer is a writer at Haaretz and the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

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