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Religious Left raises its head: ‘This isn’t the religious Zionism I was raised in’

Elhanan Miller
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Published: 31 January 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

ELHANAN MILLER attended an Israeli conference of disparate groups from the Religious Left who were urged to take small actions to draw them out of their comfort zone.

If there is one sector that seemed utterly defeated following the recent Israeli elections, it is the religious Left. But over 600 Israelis gathered in a Jerusalem conference hall this week to demonstrate that even without parliamentary representation, their ideology is still alive and kicking.

Spanning the gamut from ultra-Orthodox to Mizrahi traditionalists, representatives of civil society came to Heichal Shlomo – the former seat of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – to protest government policies that curtail women’s rights, champion the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and appropriate Jewish language to promote suppression of civil liberties.

The keynote speaker was Israel Prize laureate Adina Bar Shalom, the eldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, who died in 2013. The former Sephardi Chief Rabbi was the engine behind the establishment of Shas, an Ultra-Orthodox party whose current leader Aryeh Deri is considered Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest political ally.

Attendees at the conference (Elhanan Miller)
Attendees at the conference (Elhanan Miller)

“Ultra-Orthodox society, which I belong to, is changing,” Bar Shalom told the audience. “Extreme statements, support for discriminatory policies, and racism have lifted their head and have become commonplace.

“Rabbi Ovadia Yossef ruled that it was permitted to forego parts of the Land of Israel for Peace,” she added. “Today, no one dares utter the word ‘peace’.”

Clearly, the organisers of the Religious Left conference were attempting to broaden the scope of “the camp” beyond the typical Ashkenazi, often Western-immigrant demographic which made up a large proportion of the attendees. The line-up of speakers at the opening plenary included three Haredi representatives and five women.

When Brit Yakobi, the MC, asked the audience to raise their hands if there was a gap between their family background and their current political identity, nearly all hands were raised. A similar result occurred when she asked whether people were embarrassed by the current government.   

Eran Ben-Yehuda, head of the Labor Party’s Jerusalem district, said that although the conference was “impressive and moving,” organisers should have invited opposition politicians on stage. Two of his party’s MKs, Naama Lazimi and Gilad Kariv, were in attendance, but didn’t speak.

"Some of the things which were said are further Left than where I’m at, but I still appreciate such a broad spectrum of religious views on one stage."

Eran Ben-Yehuda

“I came because I’m part of a political and sociological camp that often feels quite lonely,” Ben-Yehuda said. “This conference was a sort of invitation to come and take part, to find a home.

“It’s true that I didn’t agree with everything. Some of the things which were said are further Left than where I’m at, but I still appreciate such a broad spectrum of religious views on one stage. That has more value to me than any disagreements we may have.”

Following the plenary session, attendees dispersed to breakout circles on subjects such as “Judaism, justice and the economy,” “Judaism and pride,” and “the role of education at the current moment”.

Eran Ben-Yehuda (Elhanan Miller)
Eran Ben-Yehuda (Elhanan Miller)

In the room discussing “the role of Israeli media and the limits to freedom of expression,” independent journalist Israel Frey spoke of his struggle to criticise the occupation in a public climate growing more hostile to critical voices.

He called on the audience to take small actions that take them out of their comfort zones. “If everyone does just one thing, from liking a post to participating in a tour of Hebron, the wall will collapse,” he said.

Rabbi Lea Shakdiel, a 71-year-old feminist social activist from the southern city of Yeruham and a speaker at the conference, said she was enticed to come by the buzz of a younger generation of Israeli activists.

"It’s horrible. I can’t even pronounce that term. They aren’t Zionists, because there can be no Zionism without democracy."

Rabbi Lea Shakdiel

“My generation is a bit tired,” she said. “This new generation can do a better job than us.”

Shakdiel, who was appointed the first woman on a religious council following an appeal to the Supreme Court in the 1980s, always saw herself as part of the Religious Zionist camp but said she could stomach that label no longer.

“It’s horrible. I can’t even pronounce that term. They aren’t Zionists, because there can be no Zionism without democracy. As for their religiosity, it may be found in the warehouses of Judaism, but implementing these ideas today is a national disaster and a moral problem of the first degree. This isn’t the religious Zionism I was raised in.”

Photo: Rabbi Lea Shakdiel (Elhanan Miller)

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