Matan Kahana was an F-16 fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, so he’s not one to back down from a difficult mission. When he entered politics and served as Israel’s minister of religious services in Naftali Bennett’s coalition government, Kahana gave himself a politically perilous assignment: to loosen the grip of haredi Orthodox rabbis on Israeli religious life. He pushed for significant reforms within Israel’s religious institutions and kashrut certifications and appointed women to religious councils. The Israeli press called his actions “revolutionary.” Now a Knesset member for Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, Kahana said he will fight to temper the far right and keep his reforms intact.
In our interview, Kahana talks about his own religious background, why he chose to take on a mission of reform, and how Israelis and the diaspora can find common ground.
The perception that the Orthodox have a hold on Israeli life is one of the most significant points of contention between Israel and Diaspora Jews. Is that starting to change?
Most of the Jews in Israel are Orthodox. Even the secular Jews in Israel are Orthodox. As we say here, “The synagogues that we are not going to are Orthodox synagogues.” Take me, for example. I never met a Reform Jew until I joined politics, and the first time I met a Conservative was after I was released from the army at the age of 46. All this influences the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. We have to work together with the Jews in the Diaspora to find solutions to this to this issue. The hardest thing is the conversion issue because we don’t accept non-Orthodox conversions. Even when I was the minister of religious affairs, and I was a very revolutionary one, I made a lot of reforms in these religion-and-state issues. But we have to find a solution so we will not tear the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. It’s very important that we continue to be am echad — one people.
The Times of Israel called you an Orthodox revolutionary. It sounds like that’s a term you embrace. What is it about your background or your personality that makes you want to take these established institutions and reform them?
That’s a very good question. The thing is, I have two legs. Of course, my right leg is an observant Jew that observes halacha and the living God and tries to do all the mitzvot. But my other leg is where I spent all of my adult life with the most secular people in Israel — the pilots in the Israeli Air Force. So, I thought that a person like me could bring a solution to these rifts. You can’t force anyone to believe in God. And you can’t force anyone to be a religious Jew. And I believe that if we do as much as we can to reduce forcing people, they will come by themselves. This is what I tried to do, to reduce religious laws, and hopefully, they will try to be more and more close to Judaism.
You’re a relative newcomer to politics. As you know, Israeli politics is a rough business. What have you learned so far?
I learned that it’s totally different from what I knew in the air force and in the army, where there is competition, but everyone wants you to succeed. In politics, everyone wants you to fail, and they will be happy to see you fail. Everything in politics comes with a price. If you and I want the same thing, but you want it a bit more than me, it will cost you.
What are your priorities now as a member of the Knesset?
I will fight to preserve some of the changes that I made. And I hope that they will not erase everything. I’m very afraid about what they are going to do when the opposition is very weak, and the coalition is very strong. I will have to make sure that things are going in the right direction. In every field that they will deal with — in security, the law, religion and state, economics, everything — we should watch them and see that they’re going the right way. Even in the field of connection to the Diaspora Jews, I am very afraid that it’s not going to be very simple.
The Z3 conference is focused on fostering a sense of Jewish unity. What do you think are the biggest obstacles to unity between Israel and the diaspora?
I will start with the relationship between the Orthodox Jews in Israel and Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora. In my days as the minister of religious affairs, at least I had some conversations with non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. When I was visiting the United States, I visited Reform synagogues. Maybe I didn’t deliver all that they wanted, but they knew that I would always listen to them. I am not so sure that the next minister of religious affairs will want to meet them at all.
Let’s say we put you in charge tomorrow. What is the ideal relationship between synagogue and state? How would you set things up?
What’s happening is that extremists from both sides have been influencing what’s happening in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox are telling us how we should act and, on the other side, there are also secular extremists that will not accept any kind of agreement. So, if the normal people in the middle of this political mess gather together and say, “We want some agreements,” everyone will give a little bit. Each side will compromise a little bit—not fulfill all our dreams, but we will be able to live together in harmony.