What happened to Barak’s social ‘revolution’?

JERUSALEM, Dec. 19 (JTA) – When Tsahala Gelfand was brutally strangled to death by her husband last week, Israelis were reminded of a grim domestic issue that has been overshadowed by the crisis with the Palestinians.

But even though the third wife-killing in a week – and the 16th this year – sparked a debate over domestic violence in Israel, the murder did not distract Israel from the number-one issue on its agenda: the mini-war with the Palestinians.

Some activists say social issues largely have been left by the wayside. Issues of religion and state have not disappeared, but they are not nearly as prominent as they were before.

Just 19 months ago, Ehud Barak came to power as prime minister after perhaps the first Israeli election campaign run on a platform that emphasized social, economic and religious issues as much as peacemaking.

But after the election, Barak made peacemaking his top priority. By his own admission, he did little to seriously address pressing issues associated with a society burdened with growing income gaps and a deep religious-secular chasm.

In recent years, the increasing attention Israelis have given to social and religious issues was seen as a natural consequence of the move toward peace with their Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.

Many of these issues had been ignored for years because the public agenda was preoccupied with a perpetual state of war. According to conventional wisdom, the onset of regional peace had freed up Israel to finally address social issues.

Now, as recent violence has again pushed Israel’s security problems and political crisis to the top of the national agenda, the growing possibility of a long-term conflict has left some social activists worried.

“Since the beginning of the unrest, the media have been dealing in an almost obsessive way with security and political issues, and this has pushed social issues off the agenda,” says Efrat Fink, head of the legal department at Yedid, a nonprofit organization that provides consulting services for disadvantaged Israelis.

“This poses a real threat to civil society in Israel.”

Fink says that several pressing issues, which in the past would have been debated intensely, have been completely ignored.

For example, a bill had been proposed in the Knesset to create a “Basic Law” – one that serves in lieu of a constitution – to ensure fundamental social rights to every citizen. Shas, the fervently Orthodox party that usually supports welfare spending, shot it down.

Nobody noticed.

Meanwhile, the National Council for the Child has compiled a list of shocking stories related to child welfare that it has failed to sell to the media because of the “situation,” as the crisis with the Palestinians has come to be known. The stories range from sexually abused children who are receiving no counseling to tales of doctors who refuse to administer painkillers to seriously ill children.

Shas, which has a constituency of poorer Sephardi Jews, has used the media inattention to push through legislative moves that in normal times likely would be controversial.

Shas spokesman Itzik Sudri is particularly proud that his party has secured preliminary legislative approval for a bill endorsing a state-sponsored pension plan for every citizen.

This may be a welcome move for Israel’s poorer populations. However, it would cost the treasury – which fiercely objects – about $5 billion a year.

Nobody noticed.

“It is definitely easier for us to push these moves through,” says Sudri, citing a series of hushed-up victories in the Knesset in recent weeks.

Nevertheless, Sudri, and representatives of the liberal Jewish streams, do not believe that issues of religion and state have completely disappeared from the agenda.

In fact, they have even emerged as bargaining chips in recent political chaos.

Sudri points out that it was the outbreak of violence in late September that led Barak to shelve his plans for a “secular revolution” that had angered Israel’s Orthodox parties.

Shas members, who hold 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset, said they would back Barak only if he abandoned his proposals to weaken the hold of the Orthodox establishment over such matters as Sabbath observance.

“It was buried because of the security crisis – and because we promised the government a safety net,” Sudri says.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, agrees on this point.

“The whole area of religion and state is still very much on people’s minds,” he says. “Every week, you see references to various issues – funding, the abandonment of the civil agenda, the draft of yeshiva students.

“I am not saying we have not suffered, because a reality of peace is a reality in which domestic issues will receive prominence,” he says. “A reality of great security pressure and political instability is a reality in which this issue competes with others.”

Regev insists that the “Who Is A Jew?” issue – a dispute over the validity of Reform and Conservative conversions that has colored Israel-Diaspora relations in recent years – is still alive.

The Reform and Conservative movements are awaiting a Supreme Court decision that likely will revive the issue.

At the same time, an important preliminary vote on a landmark bill to ensure religious freedom earned only minor headlines in the nation’s newspapers.

Nevertheless, legislator Naomi Chazan, a member of the liberal Meretz party who initiated that bill, was encouraged by the fact that many Knesset members participated in the recent vote.

There are other signs that the ongoing violence has not destroyed the public’s appetite for religious and social issues.

Chazan points out that according to the recent public opinion polls, the Shinui Party, which has an overtly secular platform, likely would get a big boost if new Knesset elections were held even though it has no clear positions on the peace process.

It is not surprising, Chazan explains, that domestic issues get less attention during difficult times.

“It’s totally predictable,” she says. “But issues of religion and state, and social justice and equality, are major issues, and they are not going to disappear.”

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