Interview with Israeli Minister Matan Kahana – The Forward
In a country like Israel, where regional conflicts and diplomacy always dominate the headlines, a seemingly less relevant ministry has caught the attention of Israeli citizens and the American Jewish community.
The Ministry of Religious Services, headed by Matan Kahana, a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, has undergone a major overhaul in recent months to change the status quo that has existed for decades on religious issues that define the nature of the Jewish state. .
Kahana, 49, is visiting the United States for a week-long trip that is part of an effort to reach out to the American Jewish community about the government’s desire to reform Israeli laws regarding conversion, kashrut and other religious practices that are supported by Liberal Zionists and Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.
The alliance between Israel and Diaspora Jews had deteriorated under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mainly due to partisan maneuvering and a lack of tolerance on religious issues.
Kahana’s message is twofold: Israel is the natural home for all faiths across the spectrum of Judaism while preserving its faith-based identity. halakha and the Orthodox tradition.
“The State of Israel, in principle, is an Orthodox state,” Kahana said in an interview Sunday, ahead of a meeting with Orthodox Union leaders. “At the same time, Israel is a place that respects the rights of all minority groups.”
He called it a unique opportunity to overhaul the system as the Haredi parties, who controlled the ministry and vetoed all reforms when they were in government, are not part of the current government of coalition. “I am a conservative who believes in the process of evolutions, not revolutions,” he said. “And everyone understands that running too fast on these issues will not be sustainable and will lead to the collapse of the current government.”
Kahana, who describes himself as a close confidant and longtime friend of the prime minister, said he insisted on being appointed to the post to bridge the “societal divide that stems from the sensitive relationship between religion and State “.
He argued that the once-justified effort by Haredi and religious parties in Israel to maintain the status quo has been eroded by facts on the ground – changes in society – and has led to further polarization. . “I think precisely because I am observant and engaged in Western culture, I could serve as a bridge between the two sides to demonstrate our faith as a unifier, not a divider,” he said. “I deeply believe that Judaism is so wonderful that if we stop forcing it on people, it will be sought after.”
Since taking over as head of the ministry last June, Kahana placed women and scholars in all local religious councils nationwide who oversee religious facilities and services. His recent plans to end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over the kashrut oversight industry to create greater competition – which passed the Knesset last year – and his proposal to reform the state-sponsored process on Orthodox conversion was welcomed fierce resistance by leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community.
A group of American and European Orthodox leaders recently traveled to Israel to pressure the government to suspend those plans that would change the status quo on religious issues.
“All my movements are aimed at strengthening our Jewish identity,” Kahana said. He said he still believed the Orthodox community was an integral part of Israeli society and not a liability, adding that his proposals had won the blessing of prominent Zionist religious rabbis.
On her current trip, which takes place during the Knesset recess, Kahana visited the Jewish community in Dallas, Texas, including a stop at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville — where a terrorist took hostage. congregants and the rabbi during prayer services from Shabbat to January. He also visited Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, Moise Safra Center and Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan on Saturday. On Sunday, Kahana visited the grave of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Queens, NY for prayer.
Kahana said that in his talks with Jewish groups, eager to see movement on religious issues, they understand he has started “a process of change” that will reset the unique relationship between Israel and American Jews.
He defended Bennett’s decision to put a plan aside to revive the 2017 Kotel Agreement, which designated a protected space at the Western Wall for various streams of Jewish practice, amid strong opposition.
No change on the Israeli-Palestinian file
Kahana said that although the prime minister has set a new tone for US-Israeli relations, there will be no resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for the remainder of the government’s four-year term. He claimed to be a loyalist who has Bennett’s back to preserve their long-standing right-wing nationalist beliefs in the coalition government made up of all centre-left parties. The two served together in the elite Sayeret Matkal Commando in the early 90s. Kahana entered the Knesset as number seven on Bennett’s Yamina list in 2019.
“This government was created with the clear understanding, fixed by agreement, that there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s not even relevant.” Kahana insisted this will continue even if and when Bennett hands over power to Yair Lapid, who represents a more liberal swath of Israeli voters, after two years.
Kahana suggested that Bennett followed the natural process of taking the responsibilities of leading his country seriously while “not abandoning his ideological views one iota.” “We are a right-wing party in a unity government that aimed to rescue Israel from a chaotic political stalemate and widening societal divide,” he said. “But we also managed to preserve our right-wing principles.”
He repeated a line once taken over by Bennett that the current government is “10 degrees further to the right” than those led by Netanyahu. “We are even 40 degrees further to the right,” he added, listing Netanyahu’s concessions to the Palestinians.
Lapid hosted a historic summit at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev on Sunday with his counterparts from the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who met with Israeli leaders on Sunday, reiterated the Biden administration’s stance against settlement expansion and support for a two-state solution. He also discussed plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, in addition to Ukraine and Iran.
Kahana said the government will continue to voice its opposition to the opening of a consulate to serve Palestinians in the Israeli capital.
He described the conference as a demonstration of Israel “taking a giant step” to advance the Abraham Accords, which were signed in 2020, under the leadership of Bennett and Lapid and to unite Middle Eastern countries against their common enemies.