Key Ministry Could Sway Culture War


Jerusalem — For more years than he cares to remember, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and his movement, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, have been pressing Israel’s Interior Ministry to comply with the law.

But that law, which requires the ministry to accept and register as Jews immigrants who have converted to Judaism abroad, repeatedly has faced a harsh political reality:

The Interior Ministry, from the founding of the state in 1948 until today, has been almost continually in the hands of one Orthodox political party or another. And despite numerous court orders, ministers from these parties have continued to flout the mandate obliging them to register such immigrant converts as citizens and Jews under the Law of Return.

“We even have one Orthodox convert we are representing who was converted by rabbinic authorities in Monsey,” said Rabbi Hirsch, referring to a center of ultratraditionalist Orthodoxy in Rockland County, N.Y. “But it wasn’t good enough for the Interior Ministry.”

Now, however, even as Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak continues nerve-wracking negotiations to assemble a majority from among the panoply of parties elected to the Knesset last month, Rabbi Hirsch and others are hoping for a modest breakthrough. For the first time in decades, the powerful Interior Ministry is expected to go to a non-Orthodox party. And this could herald changes that will reverberate across the front lines of Israel’s continuing culture wars over religious pluralism.

As of Wednesday, with coalition negotiations ongoing, Barak was playing hardball with recalcitrant parties — even threatening to govern with a minority coalition of 56, five short of a majority. Barak has said he wants to bring Likud and Shas, the two largest parties behind his Labor Party, into his government to form a broad-based coalition that would be able to more effectively negotiate peace treaties with the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria.

While everything is in flux, by almost every account the Interior Ministry — with its huge budget, jurisdiction over the Law of Return and sweeping authority over many other personal status issues — will go to the decidedly non-Orthodox Yisrael B’Aliya party.

Yisrael B’Aliya, led by former refusenik Natan Sharansky, made control of the ministry the center of its election campaign last month. And with six seats in the new Knesset, the party is now considered crucial for Barak’s still-unformed coalition. As a result, Sharansky or one of his party colleagues are considered almost certain to be awarded the Interior post to entice them into Barak’s Knesset camp.

Yisrael B’Aliya focused on this ministry because its constituency — hundreds of thousands of mostly secular Russian immigrants with often only tenuous ties to Jewish identity — also claims to have suffered from the legal obstructionism of Interior’s Orthodox leaders.

Many saw their social welfare benefits and legal rights floating in limbo as the ministry stalled or froze their applications. And their resentment no doubt was exacerbated by the fact that the party running the Interior during the tenure of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Shas — a movement led by ultratraditionalist Orthodox Sephardim who openly decried the huge influx of Ashkenazi immigrants.

Earlier this year Eli Suissa, the Shas Interior minister, sparked an uproar when in a campaign ad, he deplored the Russian immigrants as “counterfeiters, con men and call girls.”

Now many looking to expand religious pluralism in Israel believe that the Russians’ widely expected portfolio gain will be theirs as well — at least up to a point.

“It will be very, very important,” said Rabbi Hirsch, “because there won’t be these types of unilateral bureaucratic actions which serve to frustrate us and the law.”

Uri Regev, a leading advocate for the Reform movement in Israel, noted, “Whoever holds the Interior portfolio sets the policy of who can enter Israel.” He said Shas applied “fundamentalist religious views” in making these decisions.

“[There] is no single issue on the gut level that has so angered the Russian Jews,” Regev said. In numerous instances, he said, “Russians who are already Israeli citizens or residents have faced a clerk who pulled the identity cards from their hands. This leads to indignity and humiliation.”

Tova Ellinson, the ministry spokeswoman, denied these charges.

“It’s not true at all,” she said. “There are laws in Israel, and we operate according to these laws and Supreme Court rulings. According to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish grandfather can come here. It only becomes problematic when someone tries to cheat. There are many illegal workers who want to live here and forge their documents.”

Interior’s influence is far-reaching. Due to a system of centralized government dating back to the state’s founding, it is the address when local municipalities need government funding. When a municipality wants to lease land to an organization, institution or even synagogue, it first must receive the approval of the Interior minister.

Several years ago, when then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek wanted to lease land to the Reform congregation Kol Hanishama, the Interior minister denied the request. The movement took the case to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in its favor.

The ministry is also responsible for entry permits and all matters related to citizenship and personal status.

Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office, believes that Barak has “a clear mandate on who not to give [the ministry] to.” Referring to the country’s two left-wing parties and Sharansky’s party, he said, “The one clear issue in this election was the sentiment expressed by Meretz, One Israel and Yisrael B’Aliya — not to give this ministry to Shas or the haredim [ultratraditionalists].”

In the eyes of Meretz and Shinui, a new anti-haredi party led by Tommy Lapid, Shas also was guilty of “denying legitimacy to the Reform and Conservative movements,” Alpher said.

But Rabbi Hirsch, the American Reform Zionist leader, stressed that Sharansky and his party, while they would be a huge improvement, would be no panacea for religious pluralists.

“They’ve told us repeatedly, they act primarily in response to their own [Russian] voters,” he said.

For example, marriage in Israel is monopolized by Orthodox rabbinic authorities who impose Orthodox rules that offend many non-Orthodox couples — or even prohibit them from wedding, “but when we’ve talked to Sharansky’s people about civil marriage, they’ve told us, ‘we’re not interested in civil marriage for everyone but for our own people,’ ” Rabbi Hirsch said.

“So even if the Russian party does get control of Interior, I don’t expect them to make tremendous bureaucratic changes. But we would expect them to stop frustrating the law, and that’s something quite important.”

Lawrence Cohler-Esses is a staff writer. Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent.