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Religious Affairs Ministry’s Demise Could Encourage Pluralism in Israel

The decision by Israel’s government this week to dismantle the Ministry of Religious Affairs could promote pluralism by making the delivery of religious services more locally accountable.

The ministry is an institution that has been notorious for overpoliticization.

But it remains to be seen whether the end of the ministry – possibly in one month – will make a big impact on religion-state relations in Israel, or the quest for equality in religious services by Israel’s non-Orthodox movements.

At the Cabinet meeting in which it was decided to dismantle the ministry, Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister, said the decision was not intended as a blow to the Orthodox parties that have controlled the ministry in the past. The services and funding of yeshivas that used to flow through the ministry will now be transferred to other ministries and local municipalities.

Shaul Yahalom, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party, said he did not expect any “big changes” from the move. “We must differentiate between the dismantling of the ministry and maintaining religious services in Israel,” said Yahalom. “If the services will be transferred to other offices and municipal religious councils will be kept intact, there should be no problem.”

Supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, the local religious councils have jurisdiction – including the allocation of public funds – over issues relating to marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for Jews living in Israel.

But Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said he believed that in the long term, the decision would pave the way to more accountability – and therefore more pluralism in Israel.

“It could form the basis for greater pluralistic application of religious services,” he said, “because municipal government is more diversified both in terms of its policies and the democratic composition.”

The move was initiated by Yossi Beilin, Israel’s minister of justice, in light of harsh reports by the state comptroller about the operations of the ministry. Beilin will head a committee to discuss how to take apart the ministry, which will also consider the possibility of canceling the municipal religious councils as well.

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