TEL AVIV (JTA) — “Everyone who answers, ‘Thank God’ when asked, ‘How are you,’ raise your hand,” Brit Yakobi asked the crowd of 700 people gathered in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.
The overwhelming majority of hands shot up.
“Everyone who is mortified with our current government, raise your hand,” continued Yakobi, the director of religious freedom and gender at Shatil, an Israeli social justice organization founded by the New Israel Fund.
Once again, almost every hand went up.
The display took place at a Jan. 25 conference billing itself as for Israel’s “faithful left” — a demographic that many consider nonexistent but which is seeking to assert itself in response to the country’s new right-wing government.
Israel’s politics leave little room for left-leaning Orthodox Jews. In the United States, the vast majority of Jews vote for Democrats, and even in Orthodox communities, where right-wing politics are ascendant, liberal candidates hold appeal for some. But in Israel, the official leadership of religious Jews of all stripes is firmly entrenched in the right — and their followers tend to vote as a bloc.
The hundreds of Orthodox Jews at the conference hope to change that dynamic, and have already started doing so by showing up en masse — and to applause — at the anti-government protests that have swept the country since the beginning of the year. But while their list of goals is long, they are also taking time to appreciate the unusual experience of being together.
“Just being in a room and realizing I’m not the only one like me was amazing,” attendee Shira Attias told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The main takeaway for members of this niche and controversial group [is] to feel on their skin that they are not alone.”
Nitsan Machlis, a student and activist, agreed. “I’ve never seen so many people in a room together with whom I felt like I can identify with both religiously and politically.”
The conference took place inside the Heichal Shlomo synagogue, located adjacent to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue at the same intersection as Israel’s prime minister’s official residence — a symbolic spot at the heart of Israel’s religious center.
“The fact that it was in Heichal Shlomo is quite significant because it’s a very Orthodox place,” said Ittay Flescher, educational director of an Israeli-Palestinian youth organization who attended the event. “It was chosen intentionally as an iconic Orthodox place, a place where Torah learning happens.”
That’s meaningful because members of the new government have disparaged critics of its policy moves as being anti-religious and opposed to Torah values.
According to haredi activist Pnina Pfeuffer, a member of the steering committee of Smol Emuni, which means faithful left in Hebrew, the conference was driven by the idea that leftwing values are an integral part of being Jewish.
“We’re not left-wing despite being religious, it’s part of how we practice our religious beliefs,” said Pfeuffer, who serves as the CEO of New Haredim, an umbrella organization for haredi education and women’s rights groups.
Organizer Mikhael Manekin, a veteran anti-occupation activist and religious Zionist, referred to it as a “very frum” conference, using the Yiddish word for the religiously devoted. Speakers heavily referenced both Jewish texts and previous generations of rabbis, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who famously ruled it permissible under religious law to surrender land for peace, and the Lithuanian scion, Rabbi Elazar Shach, who likewise supported Jewish withdrawal from the Palestinian territories if it meant preserving Jewish life. (Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom, Yosef’s iconoclastic oldest daughter, was among the conference speakers.)
“All of us understand there can’t be activism without religious study,” said Manekin, who runs the Alliance Fellowship, a network of Jewish and Arab political and civic leaders.
While Judaism is not a pacifist religion per se, there is a central theme in rabbinic literature of virtue ethics and an emphasis for caring for the weak on the one hand, he said, and a skepticism towards violence and power on the other. “Our role is to second-guess anything with power.”
According to Manekin, the current brand of religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodoxy’s “very recent” move to the right are emulating secular nationalist ethics a lot more than they are Jewish traditions.
“When somebody like [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir says, ‘We’re the landlords’ and ‘I run the show,’ that for me is a very non-traditional Jewish way of looking at the world,” he said.
“The immediacy with which we accept the current militantism of the religious right, when there are such clear rabbinic texts which don’t allow for that kind of behavior is insane,” he said. “The idea that Jews can walk around with guns on Shabbat is much more of a reform than the idea that Jews should support peace.”
The ambition around peace has set the faithful left apart from the wider anti-government protests, which have not focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A week after the conference, a Palestinian terror attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue that took the lives of seven residents after the Shabbat service put these beliefs to a test.
But Manekin said such events — another attack followed this week — would not change his worldview. “Our tradition is [that] the response to death is mourning and repenting. The political response shouldn’t be based on revenge but on what we think is for the betterment of our people,” he said after the Neve Yaakov attack.
Despite hesitations from his co-organizers, Manekin was adamant about labeling the conference “left,” because, he said, among the fringes of the religious community is “a large group of people who are tired of this constant obfuscation of our opinions to appease the right who are never appeased anyway.”
According to Flescher, the left in Israel is no longer relevant “because it can’t speak the Jewish language.” Religious people often feel like the left is “foreign, and alien and even Christian in some regard,” he said.
One of the goals moving forward, Pfeuffer said, is to develop a religious leftwing language.
But as the conference demonstrated, even under the banner of the religious left lies a broad range of opinions. As Flescher put it: “The religious left is much more diverse than the secular left.”
Attias, who wears a headscarf for religious reasons, described herself thus: “I’m very progressive and I live in the settlements.”
Even though she is “very left economically,” Attias said, she refuses to label herself as a leftist because she remains “extremely critical” of the left which she says is often “very removed from Palestinians and poverty” and the issues it purports to champion.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a coexistence activist who lives in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, described his experience at the conference on Facebook. “I have rarely felt so at home and so comfortable in a sea of kippot in Israel,” he wrote, alluding to the fact that in Israel, the style and presence of one’s head covering is widely seen as indicative of his or her religious orientation and politics alike.
The conference did not shy away from raising hot-button topics that not everyone in the room saw eye to eye on. “Because we tried to include as much of a left-wing range of opinions as we could, everyone at some point felt a little bit uncomfortable,” Pfeuffer said, noting that there was an LGBTQ circle and even references to “apartheid” by one speaker, Orthodox female rabbi Leah Shakdiel.
“If you’re very comfortable then you’re probably not learning something new,” Pfeuffer said.
One thing that made the conference stand out from other leftwing gatherings was the sense of hope and optimism.
“The general mood from punditry on the liberal left is all doom and gloom,” Manekin said.
The atmosphere at the conference, on the other hand, was “emotionally uplifting, energizing, and proactive,” he said. “This feeling of ‘we now have an assignment’ is very indicative of religious communities in general. That feeling that once you congregate, you can actually do quite a lot.”