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News Analysis: Jewish Pluralism Issues May Stay Unresolved Under Barak’s Coalition

Religious pluralism issues are likely to remain unresolved under the new Israeli government, given the strength of the religious parties in the emerging Barak coalition.

But with Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party poised to take over the Interior Ministry from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, it may be easier for Russian immigrants to enter the country and register as citizens.

These forecasts became common currency in the Jerusalem political community this week as details of the coalition agreements between Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak’s One Israel bloc and its various partners came to light.

Barak has until July 8 to form a new government, but his spokesman said he was expected to present it by Friday. The latest indications are that the fervently Orthodox Shas Party is in and Likud is out.

While the accords express vague intentions to address issues of religious pluralism and personal status such as marriage, divorce and burial, there is no concrete commitment by the parties to pass specific legislation within a definite time frame.

Indeed, some political observers say, given the extremely awkward arithmetic involved in his coalition-building efforts, it is to Barak’s credit that he has not actually conceded ground to the religious parties on state-synagogue issues.

While for Diaspora Jewry the most controversial issues involve the lack of recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, the main focus for the Israeli public has been on army conscription for fervently Orthodox, or haredi, yeshiva students. Many Israelis resent the exemption of most yeshiva students from the army.

In negotiations with the haredi United Torah Judaism bloc, Barak’s representatives agreed to pass legislation lowering the age at which yeshiva students get full exemptions to 24. This means that haredi men, at a relatively young age, will be able to join the work force without having to serve in the Israel Defense Force.

On the other hand, the conditions of deferment until the age of 24 will be tightened.

A committee of rabbis, lay leaders and military men will draft new criteria to ensure that serious yeshiva students can remain exempt, and that others who do not devote themselves to Torah studies will be conscripted into forms of military service in which they will be able to preserve their haredi lifestyles.

The recent successful conclusion of basic training for a group of haredi men within the Nahal Corps provides a favorable backdrop for the discussions between UTJ and One Israel politicians.

The UTJ bloc, which received no ministries or Knesset committee chairmanships under the agreement, claims that its support for the government is contingent not on jobs or political spoils but solely on the good-faith implementation of the agreement on conscription and other religious issues.

Shas, which is also expected to join the Barak coalition, effectively empowered UTJ to negotiate on its behalf over the yeshiva conscription issue, and Shas’ rabbinical leaders have endorsed the accord between UTJ and Barak.

With UTJ (which has five Knesset seats), Shas (17 seats) and the National Religious Party (five seats) in the coalition, it appears unlikely that the Knesset will enact legislation instituting pluralism in the administration of marriage and divorce.

Non-Orthodox rabbis are likely to remain legally excluded from performing these life-cycle rites.

Moreover, the Reform and Conservative movements will likely still have to fight hard to receive their slice of state and local government support for their educational and cultural programs and institutions.

On the controversial issue of conversion, One Israel and the NRP, in their agreement, make reference to the Ne’eman Commission, a panel created under the Netanyahu government that proposed the creation of interdenominational conversion institutes which give Conservative and Reform rabbis a role in the education of potential converts.

Conversions performed in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis are not currently recognized by the Israeli authorities. Even with the new conversion institutes, the conversions will still be performed only by Orthodox rabbis.

Efforts to implement this proposal have been going ahead quietly despite the reservations of the official Chief Rabbinate and the outright opposition of some haredi rabbis.

Political observers note there is no firm commitment by Barak and his party to make the Ne’eman process law.

On the other hand, since the process is backed by the NRP, it may be allowed to go ahead, without fanfare, until it produces its first crop of conversion candidates — at which time the Orthodox establishment and the haredi parties may possibly agree to review their positions.

If the reference to Ne’eman in the agreement with the NRP is vague, the references to easing the restrictions on marriage, contained in One Israel’s agreement with Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, are even vaguer.

“The government will act in order to promote a solution for couples wishing to marry who are not [both] Jewish, and will examine and guide the policy of the population registry” — a department of the Interior Ministry — “regarding the personal status of the immigrants,” that agreement says.

The issue has taken on increasing importance since the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are not Jewish.

In a different political climate, one might expect an effort to introduce civil marriage in Israel, at least for couples who cannot marry under the existing law.

Indeed, a limited civil marriage option is more feasible in Israel’s political reality than any scenario extending state recognition to the non-Orthodox denominations.

In practice, though, any legislative move toward civil marriage seems unlikely under Barak, given the balance of power in the evolving coalition.

Instead, the vague words signed by One Israel and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah will probably stay vague and unimplemented.

Nevertheless, Barak’s accession to Sharansky’s unwavering demand that he receive the Interior Ministry will result in a new, and much friendlier, attitude in the ministry corridors toward newcomers who are not Jewish or whose Jewishness is not recognized under halachah, or Jewish law.

The immigrant party attracted enormous attention, and probably many votes, during the election campaign by focusing on what it charged was the Interior Ministry’s often heartless and insensitive treatment of such people.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah claimed that this policy grew harsher in recent years, especially under the present Shas minister, Rabbi Eli Suissa.

Under Shas’ 15-year stewardship, and particularly under Minister Aryeh Deri, the formerly notorious Interior Ministry bureaucracy was thoroughly modernized and overhauled. Computerization and staggered opening hours made the ministry more accessible.

But its policies on admission to Israel, registration and citizenship grew steadily tougher in the face of waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and an influx of foreign workers.

Deportations, sometimes preceded by lengthy periods of incarceration, have become frequent occurrences.

To a certain extent, this will now be changed.

Within the confines of extant legislation, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah officials can be expected to show more empathy to their former compatriots and, by extension, to other foreigners.

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