Religious-secular tensions flare in Israel during Barak’s U.S. visit

JERUSALEM, July 18 (JTA) — While Prime Minister Ehud Barak was holding talks abroad about reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process, the religious-secular debate was heating up back home. The issue flared up over the weekend, after Labor Ministry inspectors fined stores in a kibbutz shopping center for conducting business on the Sabbath. Trade Minister Ran Cohen, of the secular Meretz Party, accused the Labor Ministry, run by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, of violating the spirit of the coalition accords that created Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s diverse government. A spokesman for the Labor Ministry denied that the inspectors’ actions had any political motivation. The fighting between the two ministries occurred as Barak was making it clear that he is committed to maintaining the religious status quo, which gives the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate control over religious affairs in Israel. Barak indicated during his visit this week to the United States that only after Israel solves its conflict with its Arab neighbors can Israeli society engage in the dialogue necessary to find a balance between the role of role of religion and the rights of individuals. He also hinted that he believes that the Israeli Supreme Court, where the Reform and Conservative movements have in some cases won their battles for recognition, should continue to address these concerns. Over the weekend, Druse inspectors working for the Labor Ministry were dispatched to the shopping center at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, where stores were fined for employing Jews on the Sabbath. Store owners at the kibbutz said they were surprised by the inspectors’ arrival Saturday, adding that there had been no such visits during the past six months. Criticizing the fines, they pointed to a court ruling earlier this year that kibbutzim are not bound by Israel’s Sabbath laws. The Labor Ministry spokesman said the inspectors had not gotten to the shopping center earlier because of a heavy work load. Meanwhile, in an ongoing dispute, several hundred fervently Orthodox protesters demonstrated against allowing traffic through their Jerusalem neighborhood on the Sabbath. Nine demonstrators were arrested for assaulting police and throwing rocks. Reacting to the various developments, legislator Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of the secular Shinui Party said little had changed on the religious-secular front despite pledges by the new government to respect the rights of people on each side of the religious-secular divide. Meanwhile, tensions involving Judaism’s religious streams were expected later in the week, when mixed prayer services for Tisha B’Av were expected to be held at the Western Wall. Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements have not officially planned such services, but the movements’ leaders said individual worshipers could be expected to meet at the site, adding that they expect Israeli police to provide protection should fervently Orthodox Jews attempt to disrupt the services. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, as the Conservative stream is known in Israel, said his movement has never officially organized services at the Wall, but he expects between 150 to 200 Conservative Israelis to arrive on their own. “We will not appeal to our members to come and pray, since we do not want it to be interpreted as a provocation and we do not think it is correct to use prayer as a protest,” said Bandel. “However, I have no doubt that many members will come to pray, and I hope the police will protect them if, God forbid, they are attacked.” In recent years, groups of Reform and Conservative Israelis who held services at the Western Wall on Shavuot and Tisha B’Av were attacked by members of the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community. Last Shavuot, a crowd of haredim surrounded a Conservative service, and some hurled bottles at worshipers. Police provided adequate protection to enable the service to continue. (JTA correspondent Avi Machlis in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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