Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana arrives at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021EMMANUEL DUDANDE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Matan Kahana’s lonely battle to build a religious-Zionist-labor-Orthodox-democratic Jewish state
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.
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