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On Israeli religious reforms, Naftali Bennett still figuring out road map

by Uriel Heilman, JTA

November 19, 2013 | 9:54 am

Naftali Bennett says his wife, Gilat, right, only drew closer to Judaism when the couple lived in New York. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Naftali Bennett says his wife, Gilat, right, only drew closer to Judaism when the couple lived in New York. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries — religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs — Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.

“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”

But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel — establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions — don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.

“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.

He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue — a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.

“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.

“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach — I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”

Bennett says his approach to religious reforms is governed by three considerations: The changes must be good for Israel, done in discussion with the relevant constituencies and cannot contravene Jewish law, or halachah. Some Orthodox rabbis merely enabling egalitarian prayer, as Bennett did by building the Kotel platform, violates halachah. Bennett said he’s still figuring out where his red lines are.

“Any move by any Jew that gets him closer to Judaism, to our heritage, is a good thing,” Bennett said. “At the same time, there is a value — notwithstanding the disagreements — there is a value of having, on an official level, let’s say, lines that we don’t cross.”

It’s not clear how much wiggle room that leaves Bennett on such issues as non-Orthodox conversions or Conservative and Reform weddings that do not conform to halachah. He has made clear he opposes civil marriage legislation, though he says he wants to find some kind of solution for couples who have no ability to marry under Israeli law, such as interfaith couples.

“This is perhaps one of the most sensitive issues that we’re only starting to learn and map out what we can do,” he said. “What we don’t want to do certainly is encourage couples that can get married according to halachah and encourage them to get married in a different way.”

Bennett said he met for the first time two weeks ago with coalition partners Lapid, Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party and Avigdor Liberman of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu to discuss areas in which they can push religious reforms. Bennett already is promoting a bill that as with marriage, would make it easier for Israeli non-Jews to convert to Judaism by enabling them to choose any rabbinical court in the country for their conversion.

Though he leads Israel’s fourth-largest political party, Bennett is a relative newcomer to the Israeli political scene. Following his army service in the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal and law school, Bennett became a successful software entrepreneur. The technology company he founded in his 20s, Cyota, was sold for $145 million when Bennett was 33.

Bennett said his combat experience during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 changed his career trajectory, propelling him into politics. He worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a couple of years, returned to the world of technology to run another company (Soluto, which was sold two weeks ago for approximately $100 million), led the Yesha Council of Israeli settlers and decided to run for the Knesset.

Stunning the Israeli political establishment with his meteoric rise, Bennett transformed what had been a moribund political party — the National Religious Party, which held three Knesset seats — into Jewish Home, which captured 12 seats in last January’s elections.

Bennett quickly formed an alliance with Lapid, the other rising star in Israeli politics, whose newly founded Yesh Atid party captured 19 Knesset seats. Together the two forced their way into Netanyahu’s coalition government, sidelining the haredi Orthodox parties, which were left in the opposition for the first time in years.

“This was a tactical alliance, but it grew into something that today is more profound,” Bennett said of his relationship with Lapid, who is now finance minister. On their work together cutting Israel’s budget, Bennett said he and Lapid jumped off the proverbial cliff together, like “Thelma and Louise.”

Bennett says economic issues occupy 60 percent of his time, with the balance divided between his other two ministerial portfolios, being a member of the inner security Cabinet, politics and life. Bennett, 41, has four children under the age of 10.

One of his main economic projects is getting haredi Orthodox Israelis to work. Bennett is promoting a bill that would grant a four-year reprieve from the military draft to 50,000 haredi Israelis if they enter the workforce. He wants to complement this with a $142 million program to train the haredim for the labor market, incentivize them to work and employers to hire them.

Bennett wants to do something similar for Israeli-Arab women, who have relatively low participation rates in the labor force.

Though Bennett maintains a hard line on Palestinian issues — he opposes Palestinian statehood — he says it hasn’t really come up much. Few in the current Israeli government seem to believe the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will bear significant fruit.

The primary regional issue that preoccupies Bennett is Iran. He spent part of last week in Washington lobbying U.S. lawmakers against easing sanctions pressure on Tehran during the current negotiations, arguing that only economic pressure will prompt the mullahs to agree to a deal.

“We need to create an either-or situation,” Bennett said. “Either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program.”

He also praised the Obama administration for being a “very good friend of Israel” and hailed what he called a “quality leap in defense ties” between the two countries.

But what Bennett seems most excited about is what he views as a historic opportunity for the current Israeli government to tackle domestic issues.

“I call it the 70-70 rule: Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues, but we spend most of our time on the 30 percent,” he said. “So this time no, we’ll do the 70 thing.”

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