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Religious-secular Strife Awaits Barak when He Comes Back Home

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While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was busily engaged in high-profile diplomacy in the United States, religious-secular disputes brewing back home may force him to use his diplomatic skills on his own coalition partners.

Barak said in New York last weekend that synagogue-and-state issues in Israel would be kept off center stage while he focuses on the resumed peace process.

Barak called for unity among the Jewish people, adding that he wanted to be seen as the premier of all Jews, regardless of past political disputes or diverse religious or ideological affiliations.

Controversial religious questions in Israel would be frozen, he said, committing himself for the time being to maintaining the religious status quo, which gives the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate control over religious affairs in the Jewish state.

As he spoke, however, his coalition partners and the heterogeneous sectors of the community that they represent were making it clear that they have their own plans — and that synagogue-and-state issues, far from being shunted to the side, will be front and center.

Shabbat observance, an endlessly fertile source of strife, served as a catalyst for the resumption of long-standing hostilities on two battlefields.

At Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, Druse inspectors dispatched by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs handed out tickets and fines last Saturday to shop owners and salespeople at one of the numerous minimalls around the country operating on kibbutz land and doing their best business on the Sabbath.

In Jerusalem on the same day, members of the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community held the latest in a series of demonstrations against allowing traffic through their Jerusalem neighborhood on the Sabbath. Nine protesters were arrested for assaulting police and throwing rocks.

The protests were held even though an arrangement, endorsed by the High Court of Justice, has already been reached under which Bar-Ilan Street, a major artery in the north of the capital, is shut to traffic during Sabbath services and opened at other times.

Along with the Sabbath-related disputes, another source of long-simmering tensions surfaced when an Orthodox member of Barak’s coalition wrote legislation that would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate complete control over conversions.

Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism bloc, has crafted a bill stating that “legal standing will not be given to a conversion performed inside or outside of Israel unless approved by the Chief Rabbinate.”

The issue of conversions, which until now focused only on those performed in Israel, has been a major source of contention among Reform and Conservative Jews.

While the bill may never come to a Knesset vote and may reflect internal squabbling within UTJ, it nonetheless underscores the fact that Barak may be unable to keep religious questions off his agenda in the months ahead.

While the Gan Shmuel raid touched on Sabbath-related issues, it was not without its comic aspects.

The kibbutz is home to the minister of trade and industry, Ran Cohen, a member of the secular Meretz Party.

He responded to the raid by threatening to send inspectors from his ministry – – people of both sexes and “in eye-catching attire” — to haredi shops and places of business on weekdays, doling out fines and tickets for all manner of infractions.

Cohen also asked his Cabinet colleague, Labor Minister Eliyahu Yishai of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, why the inspectors had not visited kibbutz shopping malls on any Sabbaths during the two months of coalition negotiations, but appeared now that the coalition agreement had been signed.

Yishai responded that the inspectors were merely enforcing the nation’s Day of Rest Law, which was, after all, a basic piece of social legislation that the leftist Meretz ought to support.

Cohen replied that the shop owners and employees want to work on Saturdays and take their day off on another day.

Yishai for his part received vigorous support from urban shops, which are kept closed under the law on the Sabbath and are finding their business threatened by the out-of-town malls.

Bar-Ilan Street also provided some laughs, with legislator Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, leader of the anti-haredi Shinui Party, lashing out at the Jerusalem police chief, Yair Yitzhaki, for kissing the hand of the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

“I am the `admor’ [Chasidic rebbe] of the secular citizens of Jerusalem,” said Lapid, a former broadcaster known for his outspokenness. “I want him to kiss my hand, too.”

Yitzhaki explained that he was merely showing respect, that he was wont to kiss Christian clerics three times on each cheek and that his job requires him to nurture a warm and courteous relationships with spiritual leaders of all faiths.

Lapid reserved his most withering tongue-lashing for Meretz.

“We warned them not to join the government alongside Shas,” he said. His own party, though wooed by Barak, staunchly refused to join any government that also included Shas.

But beneath the smiles and political barbs there could be real trouble ahead for Barak’s government.

The Shabbat-shopping controversy affects the interests and lifestyle of very large numbers of secular Israelis.

These people, aware of trends across the Western world, demand the option of shopping at their leisure — and not just 9-to-5 on workdays.

Meanwhile, the kibbutz malls are turning over millions of dollars of goods and growing into a powerful lobby.

The haredi parties can elect to turn a blind eye to what is, after all, no change in the religious status quo, but rather the development of a new situation.

By the same token, they can choose to make an issue of the malls, which would result in disharmony within Barak’s leftist-religious coalition.

Yishai’s inspectors could find themselves manhandled, or, perhaps worse, simply ignored.

The rule of law is indeed in jeopardy, though, as the secularists would argue, because of nitpicking attempts at enforcement.

By the same token, the rule of law is in danger from the Jerusalem haredim, who never fully accepted the court-endorsed compromise over Bar-Ilan Street.

Tisha B’Av, when the yeshivas break up for the summer vacation, traditionally marks the start of the demonstration season in the capital. Jerusalem could face a long, hot summer of weekly violence between haredim and police.

To head off this prospect, the new minister of internal security, Shlomo Ben- Ami paid a high-profile visit to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Monday.

No, he explained in advance, he was not going to kiss the rabbi’s hand. But he was going to try to enlist Yosef’s very considerable influence to ease tensions in the capital.

Ben-Ami, like Barak, wants above all to hold the coalition together as the peace process gets under way again.

Shas and Meretz are the two linchpins for Cabinet and legislative support of that process — as they were in the days when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were moving toward the original Oslo breakthrough.

The spat with the inspectors and the rioting on the road must have seemed pretty picayune from the lofty heights of Barak’s all-smiles trip to the United States.

But now the smiling is over and, as the premier made his way home, he had to confront the possibility that these petty but potentially coalition-breaking disputes may yet be force themselves onto his agenda.

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