Making A Push For Personal Freedom


Jerusalem — During Passover week, Amira Segev decided to buy a pack of chewing gum at a local supermarket. When she arrived at the cash register, however, the cashier refused to ring up the purchase.

“I can’t sell this to you because it’s not kosher for Passover,” the young cashier told Segev apologetically. “The law says we can only sell Passover food during Passover.”

The first to admit that the incident was far from headline-making, Segev, the director of Hemdat, the Council for the Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture in Israel, nevertheless views it as an instance of religious coercion.

“No one in Israel should be able to dictate to someone else how to live their lives,” Segev insists. “When it comes to personal beliefs and practices related to marriage, conversion, Shabbat and kashrut, the state shouldn’t be involved.”

Far from alone in this opinion, the activist is one of a growing number of Israelis demanding greater separation between religion and state.

Although most Israelis do not want a complete division between religious and national matters, Segev and thousands of others are pushing for a law that would guarantee religious pluralism, a civil alternative to marriage, divorce and conversion, and the right to observe, or not observe, Shabbat and Jewish holidays any way they choose.

Passing such a bill won’t be easy. A Freedom of Religion and Conscience bill introduced by Meretz Knesset member Naomi Chazan this spring did not survive its preliminary reading in the parliament. A second bill was submitted last month by seven members but has yet to be voted on.

Essentially a non-issue in the 1996 elections, when security and the peace process took center stage, religious freedom is slowly winning a place on the national agenda. If Segev and other activists are successful, the relationship between religion and state will be the issue during the year 2000 elections.

They already have made some progress. Hemdat and the Committee for a Constitution for Israel have been engaged in a yearlong advertising campaign to acquaint would-be voters with religion-state issues.

But it is a new umbrella organization, encompassing Hemdat and its members, as well as the “constitution group,” that may have the best chance of succeeding. Last week, Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo and Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg helped launch a coalition of liberal and civic groups whose common goal is the passage of a law ensuring religious freedom. The coalition, known as the Joint Committee for Freedom of Religion in Israel, has under its umbrella such seemingly diverse groups as the Israel Women’s Network, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Federation of Jewish Immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The decision by Milo and Burg to lend their names to the fledgling coalition is being viewed by pundits as a savvy political move. Milo has announced his intention to run for prime minister on a platform centered on religious freedom, and Burg is looking toward the year 2000, when he will no longer have a post at the Jewish Agency.

Eeki (Isaac) Elner, director of the Committee for a Constitution for Israel, says the movement already has benefited from the patronage.

“The secular majority in Israel is desperate,” he says. “During a board meeting a few months ago, we agreed that there was a need for a stronger leadership and a more high-profile approach. Now there is a public headquarters for the cause, and you can’t imagine how many people are calling us.”

According to a Tel Aviv University opinion poll, most secular Israelis, who comprise 49 percent of the Jewish population, and many traditional ones (33 percent) support such a law. The vast majority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (13 and 4.5 percent, respectively) do not.

Viewed from a broader perspective, however, the Israeli public is deeply divided on the issue: Forty-eight percent of the respondents said they favored a separation of religion and state, including the option for civil marriage and civil burial, while 46 percent said they opposed it. About 6 percent had no opinion.

The poll found greater support for granting equal status to the Reform and Conservative movements: a clear majority (53 percent) said they supported equality, while 30 percent opposed it. A full 17 percent said they had no clear position. Not a single Orthodox respondent favored it, while 70 percent of secular Jews voiced their support.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin of Labor said that for Israelis, the term “separation of religion and state is a misnomer.”

“The point is that Israelis don’t want religious law to be part of civil law. That doesn’t mean that the two can’t coexist,” he said. “The state doesn’t have to be devoid of religion.”

Segev agrees. Referring to the considerable clout wielded by the religious parties in the government, she said, “What we’re aiming for is a separation between religious politics and state, not between religion and state. Personally, my goal is to get to a point where no politician will have the power to dictate to me how to express my beliefs.”

This does not mean that Israel must lose its Jewishness in the process, Segev says. “It’s very hard to separate Jewishness from the State of Israel. Jewish nationality is infused with religion. The fact is, the first immigrants who established Israel were completely secular, yet they came because they had national and religious roots in the Land of Israel.”

Uri Regev, the Reform rabbi and lawyer who penned the first draft of the newly introduced bill, said the American model of religion-state separation isn’t appropriate for Israel.

“In America, you can’t teach Bible in the public schools and the state can’t support religious institutions. We don’t want to do away with state-sponsored religious education; we simply want equitable support for non-Orthodox institutions,” he said. “And of course, we want both civil and non-Orthodox alternatives [for marriage, divorce and conversion] for people who prefer it.”

With Orthodox parties comprising 20 percent of the Knesset, and Labor and Likud fearful of offending Orthodox sensibilities, challenging the religious status quo is a tall order. The religious Knesset members say the bill is sacrilegious and that it has no chance of passing, now or in the future.

“Just as you can’t be just a little pregnant, you can’t have just a partial separation between religion and state,” said ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the United Torah Judaism Party. “Most Israelis want Israel to be a Jewish state, so [this bill] can’t succeed.”

For Israel to remain a Jewish state, Ravitz said, “marriage and divorce must be according to Jewish law. Jewish marriage is the only key to Jewish continuity. Without this, within a couple of generations we will not be the same Jewish people.”

Ravitz acknowledges that secularists have a problem with this. “I understand that they are given no choice except to have a religious marriage or divorce or conversion. I understand that being more liberal would feel more democratic. But it would also prevent Israel from being a Jewish nation.”

Which isn’t to say that all Orthodox Israelis agree with Ravitz. Meimad, a recently revived political party whose members are Modern Orthodox and politically and socially moderate, believes that the religious status quo simply isn’t working.

Among other things, Meimad is asking that the recommendations of the Neeman Commission be implemented; that there be only one chief rabbi (to unite ethnic groups); that places of entertainment be permitted to operate on Shabbat; and that Shabbat transportation be provided in localities that request it. Meimad also supports more Jewish education, but is opposed to coercion, convinced that it is self-defeating.

Hebrew University’s Aviezer Ravitzky, who is expected to run for a Knesset seat on the Meimad ticket, said the tension between the religious and secular, and between religion and state, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Tension isn’t always easy to deal with, but it leads to creativity,” he said. “Compromise is not a dirty word.”