Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman have joined forces for the coming elections. Needless to say, this has sent shock waves through the Israeli punditocracy. Most commentators insisted it was either “good for the right” — Likud and Yisrael Beitenu are expected to garner more seats if they run together than separately — or “bad for the right,” because it supposedly marks the Likud’s abandonment of the center, leaving an opening for a similar merger on the center-left that could challenge Netanyahu’s significant lead in national polls.
I think much of this talk is too shallow to be helpful. Liberman has a stable cadre of constituents who share the average Likud voter’s political outlook on most security issues. But Liberman’s constituents are different from the Likud’s in that they’re heavily Russian-speaking and tend to be more secular. Many are not halachically Jewish. For this reason, they tend to be very “left-wing” on social and religious issues.
Whatever the security left might think about the new political alliance — clearly the next government is unlikely to offer much change to the current one when it comes to the Palestinians — this is very good news for the religious left.
If they can avoid falling into their favorite trap of behaving as though they’re the Labor Party at prayer, the Reform and Conservative movements stand poised to achieve some historic victories in a Knesset overwhelmingly dominated by Netanyahu and Liberman. Issues like civil marriage, easing conversion standards, recognition for liberal rabbis and institutions, calls to make state rabbis more answerable to their constituencies, etc., would enjoy significant sympathy and support from the likes of Netanyahu, Liberman, Gideon Saar, Moshe (Bogi) Ya’alon, Limor Livnat, Danny Ayalon, Yuval Steinitz, Reuven Rivlin, Faina Kirschenbaum, and on and on. Even many religious-Zionist MKs, such as Ze’ev Elkin, Yuli Edelstein and Tzipi Hotovely, will support initiatives seeking to liberalize some or all of Israel’s backward religious institutions.
It is time for Israel’s Reform and Conservative rabbis to put the question of religious liberty at the forefront of their own advocacy agenda. Most liberal rabbis are likely Labor or Meretz voters. Indeed, the Reform Movement’s executive director announced this week that he was running for Knesset on the Labor list. But their political stances on security or economic questions cannot prevent them from cooperating with those who, at the end of the day, share their hopes and dreams when it comes to religious liberty.
A stable Netanyahu-Liberman coalition that is large enough not to be beholden to haredi influence might be able and willing to supply the goods.
Isn’t that worth pursuing, without hesitation or disdain?
To my Reform and Conservative friends, in Israel and outside it, let us empower the next government to create real change for religious choice, competition and openness. Start talking to MKs now, as they scramble for primaries donors. Attend the central committees or local chapters of whatever party you are a member of, and raise these issues. Begin to think and speak more clearly about a broader, better kind of Israeli religiosity than the ghettoized religious politics we have today.
Don’t let the moment slip us by.