Rabbi Uri Regev at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Nov. 21, 2019. (Herbert Thier)
Rabbi Uri Regev at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Nov. 21, 2019. (Herbert Thier)

Uri Regev: Religious freedom is important to Israelis, and could bring down Netanyahu

Israel will next March almost certainly hold its third round of elections in less than a year, but Rabbi Uri Regev says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I’ve heard words of despair from American Jews [saying] nothing has changed between the first elections [in April] and the second [in September],” Regev said Nov. 21 in a talk at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

“But that’s not true. Likud lost tens of thousands of votes between April and September, and Blue and White gained tens of thousands. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu managed to get 60 Knesset seats in April, and just 55 in September. I believe those gains will be even greater in a third election.”

Regev is the CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit he founded 10 years ago to advocate for religious freedoms and social equality in the Jewish state. A longtime leader in the Reform movement in Israel and around the world, Regev decided in 2009 to broaden his outreach beyond his country’s relatively small Reform community to take advantage of what he describes as Israel’s “unique” character.

Until recent decades, there was in Israel, as in most Western countries, a correlation between the political right and the religious “right,” and between the political left and the religious “left.” That is, however, no longer true.

Israel’s once-dominant political left “is now decimated,” he said, with just 15-16 percent of Israeli Jews describing themselves as “to the left” versus more than 65 percent who say they support the political right. Continued security concerns and no apparent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contribute to that rightward drift, he said.

Meanwhile, he continued, several studies, including one in 2016 from the Pew Research Center, show that two-thirds of Israeli Jews support a separation between state and religion. In the 2019 Israel Religion and State Index, commissioned by Hiddush, 69 percent of Israeli Jews said it was “important” that the party they vote for support religious freedoms, notably the freedom to marry whom they choose, and public transit on Shabbat, as well as social equality including an end to draft exemptions for yeshiva students.

“So what we have is two-thirds of Israelis on the political right, and two-thirds supporting religious freedoms and social equality,” he said. “No study shows different figures.”

Both Likud, on the right, and Blue and White, a center-right party, satisfy voters’ security concerns, he said. But whereas Netanyahu has allied himself politically with the haredi parties, which support the religious status quo, Blue and White has included in its platform the key religious freedoms supported by most Israelis.

So those of you who think issues of religion and state are not important to Israelis, the September elections show they are front and center

And that, he stated with some relish, is why support for Likud is slipping, and why support for Blue and White will continue to grow.

Avigdor Lieberman, the former defense minister, emerged this year as the canary in the coal mine. His political views are to the right, Regev reminded the crowd, but he and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, strongly oppose the ultra-Orthodox control over religious life. Lieberman just squeezed into the Knesset in the April elections, with five seats. But over the summer he made his support for religious freedoms the linchpin of his campaign.

The result? His party netted eight seats in the September elections. And his popularity seems to be growing.

“So those of you who think issues of religion and state are not important to Israelis, the September elections show they are front and center,” Regev concluded.

But Israelis are concerned about different issues than those championed by American Reform and Conservative Jews, he explained. Egalitarian prayer at the Kotel? A recent poll showed it was of concern to just 4 percent of Israeli Jews.

So his advice to this audience gathered in a Reform synagogue in California was, yes, speak up. You have a stake in how Jewish life is lived, how Judaism is practiced, in the Jewish state. But understand what it is that Israeli Jews want.

“If we focus our battle on egalitarian worship at the Kotel, we marginalize ourselves rather than aligning with the concerns of mainstream Israeli Jews,” he said.

Regev’s talk was the last of several he gave in local Reform synagogues, and it came the same day that Israel’s attorney general publicly charged Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of public trust.

Three elections in 11 months? Well, Regev said, if it brings the right result — the beginning of an end to the ultra-Orthodox control over religious life — then “that’s the silver lining,” he said.

“I see already the progress made between April and September, and there will be further progress by March,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the tremendous growth in public support, the emergence of a clear majority on the same page as we are.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.