With Shas in government, is secular revolution dead?


JERUSALEM, March 12 (JTA) – The ink had hardly dried on the coalition agreements binding Israel’s new national unity government together when Shas began flexing its muscles on religious issues.

Upon entering his new office, Eli Yishai, the political leader of Shas – the fervently Orthodox party now in control of several key ministries – made clear that he would move quickly to scrap any hint of civic reform instituted during the previous government.

“I will cancel any decision made that contravenes the status quo,” said Yishai, Israel’s new interior minister, referring to the set of informal agreements that have given the Orthodox establishment control over marriages, divorces and burials in the Jewish state.

“The results of the election prove that the people of Israel do not want a” civic revolution, he said.

Last year, after Shas bolted from his coalition, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced he would launch such a “revolution” to whittle down Orthodox control over many aspects of Israeli life. In fact, however, Barak was preoccupied with diplomatic issues and pursued his civic reform agenda half-heartedly.

Yishai said Shas will seek to cancel Israel’s recognition of civil marriages in foreign consulates located on Israeli soil, one of the few changes made during the previous government’s tenure.

Consular marriages are only relevant for a small number of people, but – by allowing Israelis with foreign passports to bypass the Chief Rabbinate and marry without traveling overseas – they represent a chink in the Orthodox monopoly on marriage in Israel.

It is still too early to say how much Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will allow fervently Orthodox parties to pursue an agenda that could exacerbate tensions between Israel and Diaspora Jewry at a time when many believe Palestinian violence requires concerted Israel-Diaspora cooperation.

Nevertheless, Yishai’s remarks – quoted first in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot and confirmed by an Interior Ministry spokesman – led some leaders of Judaism’s liberal streams to wonder whether Israel’s national unity government is indeed unifying for liberal world Jewry.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel’s Masorti, or Conservative, movement, warned the new government that it risks an uproar among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews if it reverses recent moves toward pluralism.

“Unity must not only be between the political parties inside Israel, but also the entire Jewish people, the majority of whom are members of the Reform and Conservative movements,” Bandel said.

In the United States, Reform and Conservative leaders said they are dismayed by Shas’ role in the new government, where the party will control five ministries: Interior, Religious Affairs, Health, Jerusalem Affairs, and Labor and Welfare.

However, the leaders also recognize that security matters are now a higher priority in Israel than domestic matters, and they need to support the government.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, said he expects Shas to use its new posts to create “mischief” for Reform and Conservative Jews.

However, “the national issues always outweigh the parochial issues,” Hirsch said. “The security of Israel is more important than any given sectorial issue.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he understands the political dynamic that requires Shas’ inclusion in the government.

It may foster Sharon’s “peace agenda,” Epstein said, but it “will certainly hinder any domestic agenda.”

Epstein said the Conservative movement will face a “real balancing act” to support Israel while continuing to push for pluralism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he does not expect any gains for the liberal movements under the new government, but hopes “that neither will there be any significant retreat.”

“One would hope the more moderate elements of the government would say maybe we can’t go forward, but we also can’t go backward – that’s a more optimistic scenario,” Yoffie said.

Despite the potential setbacks, U.S. Reform leaders noted that they continue to invest heavily in developing their institutions in Israel.

Hirsch said a new Reform congregation has just been built in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism dedicated a new $15 million world headquarters in Jerusalem last October.

Under the Barak government, the liberal streams made some gains:

* an agreement was struck allowing non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer services at a section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch;

* for the first time, the Education Ministry provided government funding for some non-Orthodox education programs;

* Conservative and Reform delegates were appointed to religious councils, although Orthodox representatives subsequently boycotted the sessions.

In coming months, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a landmark ruling determining whether the state will recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

Non-Orthodox leaders fear that if the high court rules in favor of the liberal streams, the government will seek to pass a law circumventing the ruling.

Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Israel office of Am Echad, a fervently Orthodox advocacy group, said he does not expect the new government to reverse its decision on Robinson’s Arch, though it may try to backtrack on consular marriages.

“Sharon’s first concern is going to be national unity within Israel, and I suspect that means most elements of a civic or secular revolution are not going to be high priority,” Rosenblum said.

“My expectation is that Sharon is not going to move much one way or another on the current religious status quo, since a move in either direction will be very divisive.”

Rosenblum also said Shas probably will focus more on securing funding for its schools and social institutions than on broader religious issues.

Despite the fears for Israeli pluralism, one member of the new government says he will push for compromise on such issues.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Barak’s liberal Orthodox minister of Israeli society and world Jewish communities, will cover the same territory as deputy minister of foreign affairs for Sharon.

Melchior told JTA that retaining the Diaspora portfolio was an “absolute precondition” for his decision to take the job.

“I hope the new administration will see as one of its prime targets to strengthen the relationship with world Jewry, and obviously you cannot do that by creating new conflicts and wars,” Melchior said.

Melchior also said Sharon has told him that one priority is building a strong relationship with Diaspora Jewry and its leaders. To that end, Melchior hopes he will be able “to try and solve these issues quietly.”

Given the bitter history between Shas and Labor in the Barak government, it is unclear what balance they will strike on religious issues under Sharon.

However, there are signs that some Labor figures are reaching out to Shas, seeking to build new alliances following Labor’s loss of the premiership.

Ultimately, much will depend on Sharon’s determination to confront Shas on religious issues – as well as on Diaspora Jewry’s will to pursue pluralism issues when Israel so needs to close ranks to deal with the Palestinian conflict.

According to David Clayman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress, Shas actually may have less power than is currently perceived, since it is wary of overplaying its hand and bringing down the government.

Even if Shas does pursue a controversial religious agenda, Clayman said, Diaspora Jews now will be much too focused on Israel’s security and “are not going to be thinking about the religious issues too much.

“For a lot of American Jews, except for the professional Jews,” religious issues are “becoming old stuff,” Clayman said.

(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener in New York contributed to this report.)

Recommended from JTA