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Israel Votes 2003 Religious Pluralism Fans Salute Gains for Shinui, but a Hard Road Lies Ahead

January 30, 2003
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After Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the biggest winner in Israel’s election would appear to be Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, head of the staunchly secular Shinui Party.

In just its second election, Shinui more than doubled its strength Tuesday, jumping from six to 15 Knesset seats to become Israel’s third largest party.

Advocates of religious pluralism in Israel, who hope Shinui will take aim at the Orthodox dominance of Jewish life in Israel, applauded the results.

The issue, long a sore spot between Israel and the Diaspora, has taken a back seat since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada more than two years ago, but still engenders heated passions.

Diaspora Jews "are under the misperception that at this time of emergency Israelis are totally consumed by concern over security," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international arm of the Reform movement. But Shinui’s dramatic success shows that, even now, "the most compelling and acute agenda item is religious freedom."

Lapid’s real challenge is just beginning, however.

A former talk-show host, Lapid until now has enjoyed the perks of notoriety without the responsibilities of power. Now that he heads such a large and powerful Knesset contingent, Shinui voters will demand results.

Unless Lapid joins Sharon’s next coalition, he is unlikely to win Knesset approval for any of his proposed reforms, such as the military recruitment of fervently Orthodox yeshiva students, legalization of civil marriage and divorce and public transportation on the Sabbath.

On the other hand, if Lapid goes back on his word and joins a government with Shas and United Torah Judaism, two fervently Orthodox parties, he will harm his credibility with voters.

In other words, if forced to choose between the opposition and a coalition that includes Shas and United Torah Judaism, Lapid may well find himself in a no-win situation.

Given Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna’s refusal to join a national unity government, and the pressures on Sharon to include Shas in his coalition, Lapid’s dream of the first all-secular government in Israeli history seems to be quickly receding.

That would be a relief for many Orthodox Jews, who accuse Lapid of virtually declaring war on Judaism.

The fervently Orthodox "community has good cause to fear the evident popularity of Tommy Lapid’s agenda, both in terms of what it augurs for the economic viability of the community’s main institutions and for the Jewish character of the state," Orthodox columnist Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

Lapid "goes far beyond his issues; he seeks to arouse a hatred of" fervently Orthodox Jews, or haredim, "and delights in expressing his contempt for Jewish tradition," Rosenblum wrote. "Lapid shamelessly traffics in the same stereotypes of haredim that anti-Semites once employed vis-a-vis all Jews."

But Lapid’s vision of a secular coalition does have its advocates. Avi Bettelheim, deputy editor of Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, calls it his "dream government."

With just four parties — Likud, Labor, Shinui and One Nation — a secular coalition would have a solid majority of 75 members in the 120-seat Knesset.

Such a government, Bettelheim writes, could fight corruption, draft a constitution, change the electoral system, institute policies for economic growth, pass a responsible budget, renew negotiations with the Palestinians or carry out a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Not to speak of reforming secular-religious relations, one of the key issues in Israeli politics until the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

"The protest of the voters, and the sheer number of votes they gave Shinui, are the expression that the Israeli public" is fed up "with the Orthodox monopoly and religious coercion," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel’s Conservative movement. "A secular unity government will be very positive in terms of a new construction of the issue of religion and state in Israel. And sitting in the opposition will cause the Orthodox parties to wrestle with their responsibly for the state of religion in Israel."

The hitch is Mitzna’s insistence that Labor and the left can only rebuild themselves from the opposition benches.

As for Sharon, he might not want to jeopardize the Likud’s traditional political alliance with Shas by going for a coalition that not only excludes it, but attacks the benefits and programs Shas holds most dear.

Shinui’s meteoric success stems largely from young, middle-class Ashkenazi voters’ disillusionment with Labor and Likud.

Shinui also benefited from the crisis in the Israeli left after the Oslo peace process disintegrated under the weight of Palestinian terror attacks.

Many young Israelis serving in the army or doing reserve duty found the conciliatory messages from Labor and its left-wing ally, Meretz, detached from reality.

Shinui’s proposal to defer peacemaking until Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat leaves the scene — focusing instead on domestic Israeli issues such as the religious-secular divide — attracted droves of secular young Israelis.

Shinui’s campaign made much of the fact that secular Israeli youth serve in the army and then pay their own university tuition, while their fervently Orthodox contemporaries are exempt from military service and receive generous state subsidies for yeshiva study.

Lapid was able to paint a convincing picture of an imminent secular revolution in Israel: An all-secular coalition could draft yeshiva students alongside secular Israelis, he argued. Religious education budgets would depend on the introduction of a core curriculum of math, computer science, English and civil studies. Israelis would be able to marry in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or civil ceremonies. The religious councils that regulate local religious life would be abolished.

In short, the Orthodox control of Judaism in Israel — and many aspects of Israelis’ daily life — would be broken.

Orthodox politicians were outraged, saying Shinui’s platform would be considered anti-Semitic in many other countries.

Shinui also has secular critics such as Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, who say the party is a source of instability in the body politic.

For stability, Israel needs two large parties or political blocs at the center of the system, Carmon argues. The return from a two-ballet system with direct election of the prime minister, which tended to fragment the Knesset, to single ballot proportional representation was meant to strengthen the larger parties.

But Shinui’s success spoiled the experiment.

In any case, given the likelihood of a coalition that includes the fervently Orthodox, will Shinui be able to make a significant mark on Israel’s political and religious life? Or will it prove to be merely a passing phenomenon?

Past experience with centrist parties does not augur well. The Democratic Movement for Change, which won 15 seats in 1977, had all but disappeared by the next elections in 1981.

Likewise, the Center Party that formed before the 1999 election disbanded before this one.

The deeper question this time is whether Labor and the left can bounce back from the drubbing they took on Tuesday. If they don’t, Shinui could expand further into their political space.

But if they do, how much of Shinui’s secular agenda will Labor and Meretz take on board, and with how much determination?

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