President Reuven Rivlin met with representatives of all 13 parties represented in the Knesset yesterday, to receive their nominations for Prime Minister, despite expressing doubt that any party would be able to form a coalition.
There are 120 Members of the Knesset, and a coalition therefore needs 61 members. After that, the arithmetic gets very tricky.
Likud is the largest party with 30 MKs, and its leader, the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, has the support of Shas (9), UTJ (7) and Religious Zionism (6), for a total of 52. Yesh Atid is the second largest party with 17 MKs, and its leader, Yair Lapid, has the support of Blue & White (8); Labor (7); Yisrael Beitenu (7) and Meretz (6), for a total of 45. Not part of any bloc at the moment are Yamina (7), which has nominated its own leader Naftali Bennett to be PM; New Hope (6); Joint List (6) and Ra'am (4) which have all abstained from nominating anyone.
If Netanyahu were to stand down, it would seem likely that New Hope's six MKs would return 'home' to Likud with support from either Yamina or Yisrael Beitenu securing a right-wing coalition. Bibi's great problem is having so many opponents saying that they will not work with him personally.
A left-wing coalition, on the other hand, would require cooperation between parties with radically different outlooks. It requires support from either the economically right-wing Yamina and New Hope plus at least one of the Arab parties. Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra'am, has expressed willingness to work with either side, but Naftali Bennett's strong support for West Bank settlers puts him at odds with not only Ra'am but also many other MKs on the left. On the other hand, reports of Bennett reneging on his pledge not to support a Lapid-led administration are gaining ground with rumours that he is now close to agreeing a rotation agreement with Lapid with Bennett getting first shot as Prime Minister. With the currently unstable nature of Israeli politics, there is no guarantee that a coalition would hold together long enough for Bennett ever to hand over to Lapid. The greatest danger to Bennett may be the prospect of right-wing voters not forgiving him for entering into an alliance with left-wing parties and an Arab party but, on the other hand, Bennett is known to be very ambitious to be PM and he may see this as too good an opportunity to turn down.
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Depending on whom you ask, it is a question fraught with all sorts of complications. However, it is relevant to the recently published Report of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities, It appears to follow the tradition of British censuses of treating Judaism as a religion and not as an ethnicity. Yet, anyone with any insight can immediately spot the difficulties. Many, many people who are halachically Jewish claim not to hold any religious beliefs. Out of these, many do follow certain traditions, such as taking part in a seder meal at Passover. In the same way, many agnostics and atheists will have Christmas dinner or buy their children Easter eggs without it speaking for any faith in the religious beliefs behind these traditions.
However, unlike Christianity or Islam, Judaism is not a faith. It is an ethno-religion, like Hinduism. Jewish people are "Am Israel", the "nation of Israel" and almost all Jews are born into Judaism. Karaite Jews and Samaritans, who recognise only the Torah as authoritative (of course, there are significant differences between the Samaritan Torah and the Jewish Torah) argue that the Torah does not provide any means for conversion and therefore have traditionally not permitted conversion. In recent years, of course, the Samaritans have begun accepting inter-marriage between Samaritan men and women from outside, so long as the bride accepts Samaritan traditions. Unlike the majority of Jews, both Karaites and Samaritans recognise patrilineal descent, ie a person belongs to the community through their father, not their mother.
The Torah does not contain any word for 'religion' as most of us would understand it in the modern world. The word dat (דת) only appears in texts from the time of the Babylonian exile onwards, particularly in the Book of Esther, and comes from a Persian word meaning law, or custom. The Jewish 'religion' is therefore the laws, or customs, of the Jewish people and, as we mentioned above, these are frequently adhered to, at least in part, by people who would vehemently deny being religious. A smaller number of people, such as Noahides, are Jewish by religion without being ethnically or halachically Jewish.
It is therefore extremely unhelpful for a census or other official document to treat Judaism as a religion rather than an ethnicity or, even more usefully, both. According to Rabbi Motty Berger, Judaism needs to be both about religion and about Am Yisrael, and abandoning either leads to disaster. Reform Judaism began 200 years ago in Germany, by well-meaning Jews who wished to fully assimilate culturally whilst maintaining their religion as Jewish Germans. We know how that ended. At the other extreme, we are aware of the damage caused to Israel's reputation by the behaviour of a minority of secular Jews who live in West Bank yishuvim (settlements).
We do agree with Recommendation 24 of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities, which is that the term 'BAME' is unhelpful. Different ethnic groups have different experiences and different needs. In his excellent book Destiny, Rabbi Ken Spiro quotes the observation of emeritus Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University that, "anything and everything is a reason to hate the Jew. Whatever you hate, the Jew is that." Whether Jews are strong, weak, rich or poor, at some point in history antisemites have hated them for it.