JERUSALEM (Jun. 13)
The cultural clash simmering between religious and secular Jews since Israel’s founding flared suddenly this week into a political uproar touching on the absorption of immigrants, particularly newcomers from Ethiopia.
The flames were fed by Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi, who objected to the Jewish Agency temporarily housing some Ethiopian olim at what he called “godless” kibbutzim. He contended doing so would result in them abandoning Judaism.
Peretz made the statements during an angry television encounter Wednesday night with Mooki Tsur, secretary of TAKAM, the United Kibbutz Movement. Appearing on Israel Television’s nightly newscast, Peretz charged that the kibbutzim had enticed immigrants from Arab countries away from Judaism during the 1950s and 1960s.
The absorption minister implied that this was responsible for a high crime rate among Israelis of Sephardic origin. He said Israeli jails were now “full with sons and daughters of Middle Eastern origin.”
“It Peretz wants a kulturkampf, he will have one” declared Ya’acov Tsur, a Laborite who preceded him as minister of absorption. “Peretz ought to know that he is the absorption minister of the entire people of Israel, not just the ultra-Orthodox ones.”
The opposition Labor Party promptly introduced a motion of no confidence in the Knesset and demanded that the Likud-led government dismiss Peretz forthwith.
Similar motions were filed by the Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam and the Center-Shinui Movement, all parties on the left wing of the political spectrum.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres held the Likud government responsible.
“If Rabbi Peretz were a private person, OK, that is his view,” Peres said. “But he represents a government, and the government must bear the consequences of his approach.”
Yitzhak Rabin, Labor’s No. 2 leader, told Israel Radio: “This outburst of deep hatred from a rabbi and Cabinet minister in Israel points to a most serious phenomenon — a real effort to tear at the social fabric of Israel.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tried to cool spirits Thursday, saying Peretz should have no cause for concern that the kibbutzim would disrespect the religious needs of the Ethiopian immigrants.
‘I WILL NOT BE SILENT’
But Peretz declared Thursday that he would not retract his allegations and got a message of support from Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu.
“I will not be silent nor rest until this evil is lifted,” the minister said.
The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, announced that it would no longer direct Ethiopian olim to kibbutzim in any case, because there was no longer a need to find temporary housing for them.
Only about 700 of the more than 14,000 Ethiopians airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon were quartered in kibbutzim.
A Jewish Agency official emphasized, however, that it would not hesitate to refer more immigrants to kibbutzim if the need arose again.
The head of the Ethiopian Immigrants Association, Adisu Masala, demanded Thursday that the immigrants be allowed to decide for themselves where they should live.
“With all the options that exist in the State of Israel and all the alternatives, the decision must be left up to us and not to others,” he said.
Kibbutz and Mapam activists demonstrated outside Peretz’s Jerusalem residence Thursday and then moved to the Absorption Ministry, where one demonstrator was arrested.
Peretz, who served in the last government as interior minister, won election to the Knesset as a member of the Orthodox Shas party. But he has since quit Shas and retains his Knesset seat and Cabinet office as an independent.
Peretz is rumored to be considering the establishment of a new religious party to replace Shas, which is troubled by the police investigation of its leaders for alleged financial misconduct.
Political pundits note that the anti-secular polemics he used in his provocative television appearance were the same he employed in his past election campaigns on behalf of Shas.
According to these observers, his purpose might be to create a new religious power base around himself.