For years, the government of Israel has resisted calls by Conservative and Reform Jews to end the Orthodox monopoly on all religious issues in Israel. This week, Prime Minister Ehud Barak became their biggest champion.
In a surprise announcement to his cabinet last Saturday night, Barak disclosed a package of civil rights and constitutional reforms he plans to press in coming months. He called it “civil reform.” But the fervently Orthodox Shas party called it a “cultural war,” and opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon said it was evidence of “a government in panic.”
Political observers interpreted the move as a possible signal to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat that Barak had turned to domestic affairs after giving up on a Palestinian peace treaty because of Palestinian intransigence over the future of Jerusalem. Before the July 25th collapse of the Camp David talks between the two leaders, Barak had planned to seek re-election based on the peace treaties he hoped to negotiate with the Palestinians and Syrians.
Some view the reforms as a message to Shas that he can govern without them. Others believe Barak plans to use the proposals as the centerpiece of an early election campaign. They argue that he might try to pass the reforms in a Knesset in which he lost his parliamentary majority last month after Orthodox parties and right-wingers defected citing “excessive concessions” during the peace talks. If he failed to enact all the reforms, according to these analysts, he could call for early elections, saying a vote for him was a referendum on his reform agenda.
“If he succeeds in framing the election campaign on the issue of domestic reform, I think he stands a chance of a solid victory,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA/World Union of North America.
He noted that Barak was elected with 56 percent of the vote 15 months ago espousing some of these very reforms.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, welcomed the reform proposals, calling them “a long time in coming. … It’s important for Israel to develop those kinds of mechanisms for its society. The big question is how they will try to educate and win people over because this is going to come as a cultural shock to them.”
Specifically, Barak said he would:
n Introduce a constitution (Israel has never had one) guaranteeing a full range of political, social and religious freedoms that would result in a greater equality between Jews and non-Jews;
n Dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry;
n Sponsor bills to advance the status of women;
n Introduce a comprehensive national service bill that would require all Israelis – including Arabs and members of fervently Orthodox groups, to sign up for two years of alternative military service;
n Impose a curriculum on all state-funded schools, including those run by the fervently Orthodox, that would include heretofore disdained classes in mathematics, English and civics.
n Introduce a bill to permit civil marriages that would be beyond the purview of the chief rabbinate.
A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, termed the proposals “part of a quest to undermine the Jewish state’s Jewish identity.” He warned that phrases like “human rights” in a constitution would “all too easily become social time-bombs, set to detonate whenever Israel’s supreme court — which has been justly assailed for its judicial arrogance by jurists and academics alike — decides to use them to advance its own decidedly secularist values rather than those of Jewish history or Israel’s citizenry.”
He added that given the court’s “reckless record, the prospect of a constitution is frightening.” And creating a document that would allow the chief justice, Aharon Barak, to effectively “create a new Israel of his dreams would be foolhardy — no, dangerous — to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.”
But Rabbi Michael Melchior — who, along with Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami — is developing a working document that will outline a vision of the reforms sought, said this should “not be seen as an anti-religious move.” He said his party, Meimad, has long advocated these reforms “because we see an Israeli society that has been torn apart.”
“Some say it is a secular revolution,” he continued. “If that is so, we won’t have any part of it. If it means the Jewish identity of Israeli society without coercive legislation, it is good for Judaism.”
Although secularists want to see the closing of the Religious Affairs Ministry because they are opposed to anything connected with religion, Rabbi Melchior said he favors its dismantling because the ministry “politicizes religion. … As a member of the steering committee and the only religious component of the government, I think we have to get it passed with as broad a support as possible.”
Barak, in an interview on Israel Radio, justified his proposals by saying: “We have a democratic, modern, advanced society which must integrate with the most progressive societies in the world. Otherwise, we will have a society divided into ghettos.”
Nevertheless, Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison told the Jerusalem Post that fervently Orthodox and secular Jews “have done an impressive job of living together, and a constitution is seen as divisive. If [Barak] had suggested a constitution as a way of a shared framework, it would have been good. But this is secular revolution [because it is] imposing its interpretation of the good life on others.”
Rabbi Epstein said many of the Orthodox have “gotten into a lifestyle that most people think is inappropriate — not being involved in the government, feeling that the laws do not apply to them, and that they can demand certain things. Until now, they have been able to get away with it. Why shouldn’t they be furious today when they are being told, ‘No more.’ ”
But Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti [Conservative] Movement in Israel, said he was “skeptical of the initiative. It seems like an election maneuver rather than a serious attempt, and unfortunately no one takes it seriously. This is more of a signal to Shas and Arafat about what will be the result of a rejection by either of them.”
Nevertheless, Rabbi Bandel said “we welcome the initiative and we congratulate him for it. And if we are talking about a Bill of Rights, you cannot have one that does not guarantee the freedom of religion, religious pluralism and an equal status for all the streams of Judaism. We welcome these reforms as long as the state recognizes Reform and Conservative marriages, as well as civil ones.”
Rabbi Hirsch said the reforms would “revolutionize Israeli society. They demonstrate again the remarkable courage of Prime Minister Barak. I hope they will garner widespread support among those in the Knesset who should know better and support him.”
But Rabbi Hirsch said he feared that Barak would not get that support because of the “stranglehold” the fervently Orthodox parties have on the Israeli political system.
However, Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs for the Orthodox Union, said such “sweeping” proposals about such sensitive issues would not “help the divisions in Israeli society. One can only wonder at the motivation of suddenly proposing the dismantling of the Ministry of Religion … at a time when Israeli polls are expressing deep dissatisfaction with him.”