Religious-secular Tension Increases As Orthodox Minister Charges Tragic Accident Act of Divine Retri

Rapidly escalating religious-secular tensions in Israel which have politicians and sociologists worried were further inflamed this week when an Orthodox Cabinet Minister claimed the deaths of 19 Petach Tikva school children in a train-bus collision last week was an act of divine retribution for Sabbath desecrations in Petach Tikva.

The remark by Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz of the tiny Shas Party brought immediate demands for his ouster from the bereaved parents. It will be the subject of a parliamentary question to which Premier Shimon Peres will have to reply in the Knesset next week. It has been denounced not only by political figures of left and right but by many rabbis and religious scholars.

Peretz’s linkage of a tragic accident to divine wrath was backed by the Shas Party’s spiritual mentor, the aged Rabbi Eliezer Shach, head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, who said Peretz spoke as a rabbi, not a government minister.

But Rabbi Yisrael Lau, Chief Rabbi of Netanya, admonished his Orthodox colleague. No one can know the workings of divine justice he said. Prof. Ephraim Urbach, an eminent Talmudist who heads Israel’s prestigious Academy of Sciences, spoke scornfully of Peretz’s “Toto (football pools) theology.” He was referring to the fact that many Shas voters spend their Sabbath throwing rocks at people driving to football matches.

CLASHES OVER FRIDAY NIGHT MOVIES

Non-religious personages have denounced Peretz’s remark as primitive and unfeeling. The Orthodox minister was referring to the protracted controversy over the Petach Tikva municipality’s permission to a local cinema to keep open Friday nights. The movie house has been the scene of frequent clashes when religious zealots have tried by force to keep patrons from entering the theater.

The Petach Tikva controversy is only one of many involving the right of Israelis to decide for themselves whether or not to abide by religious strictures. There have been violent demonstrations in Tel Aviv for the past several Saturdays over a cultural event at the Habima Theater.

OTHER CONTROVERSIES FUEL FLAMES

In Haifa, there is a controversy over whether the recently reactivated cable subway ascending Mt. Carmel will operate on Saturdays. A bitter dispute in Jerusalem concerns whether a municipal swimming pool in the suburb of Ramot will be open on Saturdays.

Only a week ago, the Knesset was thrown into an uproar when a bill forbidding the raising and marketing of pork in Israel passed its first reading. The bill was supported by the Labor-Likud coalition to appease their religious coalition partners. Opponents said the measure was an infringement on individual rights.

The religious-secular struggle over whether Orthodox religion will dominate Israeli life has been going on since the State was founded. Sociologists warn it is heating up now and will polarize the country.

NEXT STORY