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Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana arrives at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021Emmanuel Dudande/AFP via Getty Images
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Israel’s Minister of the Hyphen

Matan Kahana’s lonely battle to build a religious-Zionist-labor-Orthodox-democratic Jewish state

by
Matti Friedman
April 11, 2022
Emmanuel Dudande/AFP via Getty Images
Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana arrives at the president's residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021Emmanuel Dudande/AFP via Getty Images

It’s impossible to understand Matan Kahana, the surprise star of the current Israeli government, or to grasp the spirit of the coalition that has governed here for the past year, without the idea of the hyphen. The hyphen lies at the heart of the worldview of Kahana, a blunt ex-military officer who has stirred up more controversy, and has been called more awful names, than any other figure in the embattled government where he serves in what is usually a political backwater, the Ministry of Religious Services. The hyphen is at the heart of the crisis currently threatening to splinter the government, and will play a role in whatever political constellation ends up taking shape.

When Kahana, who is 49, was growing up in the 1980s, “be the hyphen” was an educational message drilled into religious-Zionist kids. The hyphen referred to what connected terms like “religious-Zionist,” for example, or “Jewish-democratic,” or “Israeli-Jewish,” or the community’s triangle of values: Torah of Israel-Land of Israel-People of Israel. These are all ideas with inherent tensions, sometimes just barely held together by bars of horizontal ink. Kahana’s generation was going to embody the connection. They were going to excel at Talmud and at physics. They were going to be outdoorsy, salt-of-the-earth Israelis like the atheist kibbutzniks, and they were going to pray three times a day. They’d be right wing in their outlook but would serve in the army with the most left-wing Israelis, dying with them and for them if necessary. They’d take part in democratic politics, and they’d build settlements in the Land of Israel, demography be damned. The country’s contradictions would yield to their willpower and grit. That’s what they meant by “being the hyphen.”

As Kahana, speaking of his generation, put it in a recent speech to an audience of religious Zionists, “We showed that it’s possible to do two things at once—to learn Torah and serve in the army. To excel and lead in the world of action, and to fear God. To disagree, but to fight to stay brothers.” The speech was delivered with the characteristic force of someone used to leading soldiers, and with a sense that all of this is coming apart. “Our rabbis, the great men of our generation,” he said, addressing the rabbinic leadership present in the auditorium, “you told us that our job was to be the hyphen—to connect the people of Israel to a life of Torah and labor.”

But now that he and his friends had done just that, rising through the ranks of the army and the civil service and taking their place in the center of Israeli society, they were being vilified by some of the same rabbis and political leaders for forming a government with the Israeli center and left. “The extremism afflicting religious Zionism,” he said, “is splitting the Jewish people.” Last week, pressure from the hard right succeeded in peeling off a member of his own party, Idit Silman, who shocked her colleagues by abandoning the unity coalition and defected to the rightist opposition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Another member had already jumped ship months before. Silman’s move has left the Knesset deadlocked and the coalition with just 60 votes, not enough to pass legislation.

It’s difficult to think of someone who embodies the hyphen more than Matan Kahana. The oldest of five siblings in a family with roots in Germany, the son of an electrical engineer who was badly wounded in battle in 1967 but fought in two subsequent wars as an officer in the reserves, Kahana attended high school at Netiv Meir, a competitive yeshiva in Jerusalem that educated several generations of the religious-Zionist elite. The school’s fortunes faded in the late 1990s when the principal, Zeev Kopolovitch, went to jail for sexually abusing pupils.

The crimes on the charge sheet happened after Kahana graduated, and he wasn’t among the victims. But the affair was an earthquake for the sector known to Israelis as the “knitted kippahs,” undermining the faith of many in their leadership and institutions. It contributed to the current disarray among religious Zionists, who today are hardly a coherent group at all, but a loose affiliation of Israelis who vote for different political parties and don’t listen to the same rabbis, or listen to rabbis at all. “This is the privatization generation in the religious Zionist world,” the journalist Yair Ettinger, one of the best observers of religion in Israel, wrote in a book called Prumim, or “frayed,” published in Hebrew in 2019 and due out in English later this year. (The title is a play on “knitted,” as in “knitted kippahs.”)

“It is stronger, more diverse, more extreme, more moderate, more divided, more sectarian, and more nonsectarian all at once,” he wrote. “It is no longer united around a common focal point, but neither is it split into two coherent camps with their own centralized leaderships. It spans the vast space between conservatism and modernity.” That’s Kahana’s world.

Setting off for the army in the summer of 1990, Kahana was accepted by the commando unit Sayeret Matkal, one of the military’s toughest and most selective outfits, the same one that produced Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, among many other famous Israelis. The unit had long been dominated by secular kibbutzniks, the country’s old elite, but when Kahana arrived things were already changing. Of 12 soldiers who managed to make it through training, four were observant, a number the unit hadn’t seen before and didn’t really know how to swallow. Their officer initially thought his orders superseded religious commandments, like prayer.

I met Kahana at the Ministry of Religious Services, which looks like the office of a small insurance company, complete with couches of fake black leather that have known better days and the backsides of many clerks and rabbis. I asked him what he thought happened to the kibbutzniks, or their secularist descendants, who’d once dominated the country’s institutions and politics. Why, in so many influential positions, are you now far more likely to find someone shaped by religious Zionism?

“In the end, there has to be a spirit behind the action,” he answered. “Sometimes, when something is difficult, you need to be able to come up with an explanation for why you should do it anyway, even though it may be uncomfortable and against your instincts. We have those explanations. We believe in God and the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption, and we embody what I believe to be the right connection between a life of Torah and a life of work. That’s why our young people are still full of energy.”

Whatever the reason, his army squad illustrated the trend. One of the four other kippah-wearing soldiers with him from basic training was Emmanuel Moreno, later a legendary war hero who died as a lieutenant-colonel leading a raid inside Lebanon in 2006. Another was Naftali Bennett, currently the prime minister.

Serving in Sayeret Matkal is a stamp of accomplishment and can be a ticket into the top of Israeli society, but when he reached the end of his service, Kahana didn’t join Bennett and his other comrades back in civilian life. Instead he tried out for flight school, the only military branch more illustrious than the one where he’d just served. He got in, and spent the next 25 years flying F-16s, commanding a squadron and finally retiring a colonel in 2018. After that, he joined Bennett in his new political party Yamina (“Rightward”), just as Netanyahu was beginning to lose his grip and leading Israel into a spiral of inconclusive elections. He was an anonymous member of the party at the time of the big bang of Israeli politics last summer, when Bennett led “Rightward” leftward, abandoning Netanyahu and forming a coalition that included not just the left-wing parties Meretz and Labor but also a party of conservative Muslims. Although Rightward had only six Knesset seats, Bennett became prime minister in a rotation deal with the centrist Yair Lapid, and suddenly Kahana was at the center of power.

No one sane dreams of being the minister of religious services, which has always mostly entailed channeling funding and patronage to an Ottoman religious bureaucracy in charge of things like religious courts and ritual baths. But Kahana claims this was the only job he wanted. He felt the Jewish-democratic state splintering and identified this office as the fulcrum. “I wanted this ministry,” he told me, “because I think someone like me can be the connecting hyphen.”

Kahana came to the attention of many Israelis for the first time last June, after the formation of the new government, amid a furious day in the Knesset during which the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, shocked to find themselves removed from power after 12 years, shouted down the coalition’s speakers and disrupted attempts by the new government to present its platform. Lawmakers representing the ultra-Orthodox, a 10% minority that has long controlled the religious bureaucracy, were ripping into the new coalition as anti-religious—even though it was headed by Bennett, the country’s first observant prime minister. The ultra-Orthodox MKs had been shouting at Bennett and Kahana to “take off their kippahs.”

At the podium, a furious Kahana directed a startling attack at one of the most vociferous of those lawmakers, Moshe Gafni. It wasn’t one of the usual critiques you hear coming from the left in the Knesset, but a deeply religious one. “I ask you, MK Gafni—when did you ever lie in the rain in an ambush, in terrible cold, and recite the shemonah esreh prayer while lying down? Has that ever happened to you?” Kahana roared. (The shemonah esreh must be recited standing up, and doing so lying down—in this case, to avoid enemy detection—is highly unusual.) Of course the ultra-Orthodox politician, like most of his voters, had never been anywhere near military service. “And when did you and Deri pray to God before going into battle? When did that happen?” he continued, mentioning another ultra-Orthodox politician. “Who on earth are you to teach us about the sanctification of God’s name?” By the end of the exchange Gafni seemed deflated, and the new minister had gained admirers among Israelis watching him on TV.

The religious-secular fight has been going on since the creation of the state and is familiar to everyone here, but Kahana was saying something different. He wasn’t speaking against religion—he was saying that he was religion, that his religious Zionism was as authentic as the non-Zionist stringency of the ultra-Orthodox, if not more so. He wasn’t throwing out the rabbinic bureaucracy. He was saying the wrong rabbis were in charge.

It wasn’t long before Kahana’s ambitious legislative agenda became clear: a revolution that would end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on the country’s religious officialdom. The rabbinate’s notoriously corrupt hold on kashruth supervision would be shattered and privatized. This was successfully done. Record numbers of women have already been appointed heads of local religious councils. His next goal, now complicated by the coalition crisis, is to move Jewish conversion from the auspices of the chief rabbinate, which is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, to city rabbis, who are at least potentially more flexible, and more Zionist, and thus more sympathetic to the idea that conversion should be made more inviting in the interest of national cohesion. That move is designed to make it easier for Israelis who aren’t Jewish according to Jewish law to opt into Judaism. There are hundreds of thousands such citizens, mainly immigrants from the Soviet Union, some of them Kahana’s former comrades-in-arms.

All of this was fought out in the Knesset over the past 10 months, hindered by the fact that Kahana’s party has been afflicted not only by defections but by dispiriting poll results. He and Bennett have much support and sympathy from the center and left, but those people will never vote for him, and the party’s actual constituency is slim. Kahana’s changes have been met with furious resistance not only from ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians but from many hardliners inside the religious-Zionist camp who have moved far from the Israeli mainstream. Kahana and his political allies have been called the worst names that can be summoned up from the dark depths of Jewish history: Nazis, obviously, but also Antiochus, the evil king from the Hanukkah story, and apostates, Hellenizers, Sadducees. Israeli political discourse isn’t polite, but at least it’s historically resonant.

This could easily be misunderstood by onlookers abroad, particularly liberal Western Jews eager to see someone take on the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox. Kahana is not a liberal. He’s a different kind of religious conservative. “Israel is an Orthodox country,” he told me, and will remain that way in the absence of a wave of new immigrants from liberal Jewish denominations. A compromise to allow non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall should have passed years ago, he said, but he’s not going to be the one to pass it now, because doing so would endanger the coalition’s fragile hold on power. “I don’t want to disappoint my Reform brothers, and I’m choosing my words carefully—my Reform brothers,” he said. “But I’m an Orthodox Jew, a conservative.” Part of this insistence is an attempt to protect his flank from attempts to portray him as a closet liberal intent on undermining traditional Judaism. But it’s mostly genuine. His reforms are not aimed at weakening the Jewish DNA of the state, but the opposite. He wants a more Jewish Israel. “The less we force Judaism,” he said, “the more people will choose it.”

These guys are standing up to the rabbis as no one has in the history of the state.

The story of Kahana and the ethos of the “hyphen” is bigger than him alone, and explains much about the current political moment, which can be bewildering to outsiders (and to insiders). The hyphen will continue to matter even if the government falls. It would be an overstatement to say that there’s a new political elite in Israel, but there’s certainly a new group key to the balance of power—one that’s a bit tricky to pin down, because it doesn’t conform to the simplistic ways we’ve always described our politics, and also because these people are spread over several political parties in the coalition.

They include, most obviously, Bennett, the first kippah-wearing prime minister, but also Yoaz Hendel, the communications minister, who’s in a different political party and doesn’t wear a kippah most of the time, and Elazar Stern, the intelligence minister, who’s from a third political party, and members of the Knesset like Moshe Tur-Paz, an important figure from the world of education, who’s in a fourth. There are other examples. What they share are roots in religious Zionism and often significant experiences as commanders in the army, where they grappled with Israeli society firsthand. (It’s significant that of the two extreme figures leading the rival Knesset faction called Religious Zionism, the lawmakers Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, representing the far-right side of the world of the “knitted kippahs,” the former performed abbreviated service in a desk job and the latter didn’t serve at all.) When Kahana talks about patriotic Israelis who aren’t Jewish according to Orthodox law and who need an easier path to conversion, he’s not imagining an abstraction—he’s thinking about specific people like a woman from the air force squadron he commanded, Daria Leonteev, a bomb-loader of Soviet extraction who’s as good an Israeli as they come, but whose kids won’t be Jewish according to Jewish law. This upsets him personally, and he often mentions her in interviews.

For years, many on the Israeli left warned that the religious Zionists of the settlement movement were taking over the army, and that they took orders from rabbis, not from their commanders. One essay from 2014, by the sociologist Yagil Levy, was titled “The Theocratization of the Israeli Military.” A moment of truth arrived last spring, when the titanic political struggle that had dragged Israel through four elections came to a head, and the balance of power turned out to lie with Bennett and Kahana, the kind of people who were supposedly theocratizing the army. Not only did they not take power from Israeli liberals, but they actually put liberals back in power for the first time in years. And not only do they not blindly obey rabbis, as the journalist Yair Ettinger told me: “These guys are standing up to the rabbis as no one has in the history of the state. That’s wild, and it’s the heart of the story.” The process turned out to be a lot more complicated than the critics had thought, if not precisely the opposite.

Whatever the course of Israeli politics in the next few years, and whatever the personal fortunes of Matan Kahana and his comrades, old designations like “settlers,” “right wing,” and “knitted kippahs” aren’t going to be particularly helpful in understanding what’s going on, because those generalizations no longer predict political behavior. The people who believe that the unity of Israel, its people, and institutions is a religious value as important as any other will be key to events, whether they’re in power or out. As the country is subjected to forces of political disintegration, the people of the hyphen will try to hold things together.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

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