A friend of mine attended the February 2nd political debate hosted by Times of Israel correspondent Haviv Rettig-Gur, and approached soon-to-be MK Michael Oren of Kulanu to inquire about his party’s positions on religion & state issues. Oren responded, “this election isn’t about that.”

And he was right.

I was considering writing a blog post about this before the elections; and then I read Professor Yedidia Stern’s op-ed Tiptoeing around religion and state in Israel and decided against it – why reinvent the wheel? As he wrote,

Meet the elephant in the room: the relationship between religion and state in Israel. In the 2013 election campaign, it was a central player, the key issue… In the current election campaign, however, religion and state are nowhere to be seen… Try to invite the heads of any political party to a public discussion of religion and state and you will discover that their ability to disappear is greater than that of the Cheshire Cat.

This assertion was subsequently corroborated by a Hiddush report (available here in Hebrew), providing a comprehensive review of Israel’s election coverage from the date of the previous coalition’s dissolution through March 11.

The only issues dividing secular and religious voters that “merited” media attention this last campaign season were the draft bill and same-sex marriages; but these issues only came up in spontaneous back-and-forth exchanges between politicians. The only unexpected, positive developments in the public discourse were the attention given towards ultra-Orthodox women’s political representation and the matter of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce.

Hiddush VP Shahar Ilan posited that the ultra-Orthodox parties did not campaign on issues of religion & state for fear of strengthening the hand of the pluralistic Yesh Atid party, which had pushed them out of the previous government coalition. The left-wing and right-wing parties did not campaign on issues of religion & state because both sides needed the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a stable coalition; and Yesh Atid itself did not bring these matters up out of concern for its image, in light of its limited achievements in this arena.

I voted for Yesh Atid in 2013 with enthusiasm, and was disappointed, as I’ve written. Having thought about it further since writing that blog post, I would say that my disappointment lay mostly with Yesh Atid chairman Lapid, and less so with the rest of his party. I was actually impressed with Yesh Atid’s positive campaign messaging, which focused primarily on its accomplishments, but my vote went to Kahlon’s new Kulanu party. I wanted a party in the coalition to focus on economic and social concerns, and Kulanu was more likely than Yesh Atid to join a Nentanyahu government, which I saw as inevitable.

This election, I was less enthusiastic about my vote because I was certain that the ultra-Orthodox parties would be joining the next government – in exchange for reversing the previous coalition’s limited progress on issues of religion and state. Still, after the election results came in, I allowed myself to entertain a centrist’s fantasy of Kulanu and Yesh Atid (with their combined 21 Knesset seats) forming a political block in much the same way that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi did in 2013. Kulanu may have the political clout to bring this about; and Kahlon may have the inclination and political motivation to push for it, as he wants control of the Knesset Finance Committee, which was once run and abused to the tune of 1 billion NIS per year by Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party. Rabbi Gafni, of course, declared that control of the Finance Committee was non-negotiable for UTJ; and if UTJ pulls out of the coalition, only Yesh Atid’s 11 seats could keep the Prime Minister in office (even if the ultra-Orthodox Shas party also pulled out). To be honest, I don’t truly expect this scenario to materialize – but one can dream, right?

When I’m not dreaming, I find myself searching for glimmers of hope such as soon-to-be MK Rachel Azaria’s statement of Kulanu’s platform on religion & state matters, reported on March 12th – less than a week before the elections. Kulanu backs civil unions, increased funding for the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, and revocation of the criminal sanctions for ultra-Orthodox men who don’t enlist in the IDF, which Hiddush has long claimed to be utterly counterproductive. “The haredim change by changing without admitting they change… If you try forcing them to change it has the opposite effect,” claims Azaria.

Rachel Azaria is something of a local hero to me. I’ve heard her speak, and I voted for her Yerushalmim party in the Jerusalem municipal elections. She has fought for women’s rights and pluralism in Jerusalem; and stood up for other just causes like Rabbi Leibowitz’s private kosher certification organization that aims to open the kashrut certification market to competition and undo the Rabbinate’s stranglehold. However, Azaria has also worked with ultra-Orthodox Jews on the city council, sometimes raising issues on their behalf, which their parties would never allow them to raise publicly. This is what she calls “the Jerusalem approach” to religion and state issues, as opposed to “the Tel Aviv approach,” which aims to change the ultra-Orthodox community from the outside. She was personally critical of Yesh Atid’s approach to drafting the Haredim precisely for this reason, and blogged about it on TOI.

So perhaps it’s unrealistic for me to hope that Yesh Atid will enter the next government coalition instead of the ultra-Orthodox parties, as much as I would love for that to happen… but I can at least hope that the rest of Kulanu will follow Azaria’s suit and take “the Jerusalem approach,” rather than ceding all matters of religion and state to their Orthodox coalition partners. After all, MK Gafni may continue to insist that no true Haredi man would ever enter the workforce, but some changes are already afoot, sprouting forth from the ultra-Orthodox community itself.