Plan attempts to cool Israeli tensions


JERUSALEM, Sept. 17 (JTA) — Israel’s minister in charge of religious-secular issues has weighed in with a set of ideas aimed at ending a strident debate on the relationship between religion and state.

The proposals Rabbi Michael Melchior introduced Sunday came after Prime Minister Ehud Barak introduced a set of proposals earlier this month intended to usher in an era of secular reforms.

One of Melchior’s proposals attempts to solve the ongoing rift over the acceptance of conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements, while another would shorten the Israeli work week.

It was not immediately clear whether Melchior’s proposals were made in an effort to soften the impact of the premier’s controversial ideas.

Dubbed by the press a “secular revolution,” the “civic agenda” that Barak proposed was criticized by some in the Orthodox community as an attempt by the premier to wreak revenge on the religious parties that dropped out of his coalition on the eve of July’s Camp David summit.

On the other side of the spectrum, secular Israelis have long been maintaining that limits need to be set on the power of the religious parties.

During a visit to New York last week, Barak defended his proposals — which include abolishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs and allowing El Al to begin flying on the Jewish Sabbath — and said he “never initiated a secular revolution.”

Instead, he added, “We intend to separate religion from politics.”

A poll published in the Jerusalem Post last Friday showed that 64 percent of Israelis support lifting the ban on Shabbat flights while 34 percent object.

There was also strong support for another Barak proposal, allowing public transportation on Saturdays. But Israelis were more split on other issues.

Some 53 percent said they support opening stores and malls on Shabbat, compared with the 45 percent who were opposed.

A sweeping majority of observant Jews opposed Barak’s proposals across the boards.

Speaking at a news conference Sunday in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Melchior criticized certain elements of Barak’s plan — such as allowing El Al to fly on Saturdays.

But, he said, he believed his proposals — aimed at building a consensus and creating a “completely new modus vivendi for Israeli society” on religion and state — would elicit Barak’s support.

Melchior, who as minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities has tackled religious-secular issues for the Barak government, also said several political parties support his proposals.

According to Melchior, an internal poll conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office indicated that 83 percent of Israelis believe religious-secular tensions are an existential threat to Israel.

Some of the main proposals put forward by Melchior include:

• Israel will officially adopt a five-day work week, giving the nation a day off on Saturdays as well as Sundays — a move aimed at enabling Israelis to avoid doing shopping and other weekend chores on the Sabbath;

• Cultural activities, entertainment and sports facilities will be open on Saturdays, but all nonvital commercial and business activity will be closed;

• Organized professional sports activities will be moved from Saturday to Sunday;

• Public transportation lines will be launched on Saturdays in line with the needs of each local population;

• Israel will change the Law of Return so that the non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews will not automatically be entitled to citizenship;

• Clauses stating a citizen’s nationality and religion will be eliminated from identity cards;

• A framework for civil marriages will be initiated; and

• New efforts will be made to draw up a national constitution.

Melchior said the proposals would only work if they are accepted as a single unit, since they include ideas to balance the conflicting demands of both sides of the religious-secular debate.

However, shortly after the report was announced, Yossi Sarid, leader of the secular Meretz Party, said he would object to any attempt to shut down shopping centers on Shabbat.

Itsik Sudri, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, said he had not yet seen the package, but added that Shas — which was among the three parties that bolted from the Barak government on the eve of Camp David — would object to anything that threatens the Jewish character of the country.

The proposal to remove the nationality clause from identity cards was made in an effort to solve the dispute over conversions.

If implemented, said Melchior, it could lead the Conservative and Reform movements to rescind their petitions from the Supreme Court since the state would no longer be responsible for defining who is a Jew.

Changing the Law of Return is designed to ensure that non-Jews with absolutely no connection to the Jewish people or Israel would not be automatically granted citizenship.

Melchior said recent data showed that 50 percent of the immigrants who arrived in Israel last year from the former Soviet Union were not Jewish, while 62 percent of those who arrived so far this year are not Jews.

Recommended from JTA