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Plan for Religious Reform in Israel Leads to Threats to Quit Government

The launch of a long-awaited reform of Israel’s religious institutions has rattled a government more used to weathering outside challenges such as terrorism and economic slumps.

Two ministers from the National Religious Party stormed out of an Israeli Cabinet vote on Wednesday, saying they could quit the government over a proposal to disband the Religious Affairs Ministry.

With 18 of the remaining ministers approving the reform and only three opposed, the threat against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is slight. Indeed, a walkout by the hawkish NRP could free up Sharon to make future concessions in talks with the Palestinians, however unlikely that seems now.

But hints of strife in the government, especially over religious issues, are never insignificant in a Jewish state still unresolved in its identity.

Under the plan, the Religious Affairs Ministry will be dismantled by year’s end and its various departments moved to other portfolios. Thus, for example, the rabbinical courts will go the Justice Ministry, preconversion academies to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and local religious councils to the Interior Ministry.

The fate of the Chief Rabbinate is unclear, after Sharon ruled out its inclusion in the Prime Minister’s Office on constitutional grounds.

Israeli officials said the change is unlikely to affect the Orthodox control over life-cycle issues such as marriages, divorces and burials.

But one Reform Jewish leader in the United States hailed the decision as a victory for the liberal streams in Israel.

“This is a momentous turning point in the struggle to achieve the creation of a pluralistic society in Israel, based on a more sensible accommodation of issues of religion and state,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union. “It is a goal we have been working toward for two generations.”

The change is expected to be ratified by the Knesset when it returns from High Holy Day recess. If so, the NRP will consider leaving the government, party leader Efraim Eitam said.

“The government made a wretched decision that disgraces the institution of the Chief Rabbinate and harms the Jewish character of the state,” Eitam said.

According to political sources, Sharon told the Cabinet before the vote: “I would never lend a hand to challenging the Chief Rabbinate as the highest religious authority in Israel.”

It was Sharon’s Likud Party that undertook to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry during its previous term in government, a reform long called for by governments of various political stripes. Still, many in Israel had assumed that the initiative originated elsewhere in the Cabinet — with Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid and his secularist Shinui Party.

According to media reports, Shinui pressured Sharon to finally move on the reform.

“Shinui is a faction that uses force, and there is no way of reaching a dialogue for partnership with it,” former NRP leader Rabbi Yitzhak Levy said.

Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, reportedly was close to tears at the Cabinet session, defending himself from charges of hounding the Orthodox.

Lapid and other Shinui Cabinet ministers had threatened to quit the government after Sharon had promised the country’s two chief rabbis on Tuesday night that the rabbinical courts would remain under the auspices of the Religious Affairs Ministry for at least the next two months.

However, a deal Sharon reached with Shinui does state that the Chief Rabbinate will maintain a degree of control over the rabbinical courts, to be determined by a special committee. The accord also states that authority over the Chief Rabbinate will not be transferred to Lapid’s Justice Ministry, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

For all his conciliatory tones, however, Lapid made no apologies for supporting the reform of what he long has considered wasteful establishments.

“The secular revolution made a very important step forward, and I am very proud of that achievement,” he said, “but I promise not to exploit my new authority, and to accord the rabbinical courts all the proper respect.”

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