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News Analysis: Israelis Back ‘secular Revolution,’ but Doubt Barak Can Follow Through

September 20, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The battle lines between Orthodox and secular Israelis were drawn sharper than ever this week.

The nation’s two chief rabbis reversed themselves and joined Orthodox politicians in the fight against Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s recently announced “civic agenda.”

Dubbed by the press a “secular revolution,” Barak announced the program earlier this month in an effort to usher in an era of secular reforms.

The first step, ordered this week by acting Interior Minister Haim Ramon, calls for the removal of the nationality clause from the identity card that every Israeli must carry.

Removing the clause could help solve a long-running dispute over conversions performed in the Jewish state, since the state would no longer be responsible for defining who is a Jew.

But these and other components of the secular revolution have been attacked 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.

Only Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of the Barak government from the small, Orthodox Meimad Party, is still trying to hold the middle ground.

On Sunday, Melchior announced his own reform plan, which he said sought to balance the conflicting demands of both sides of the religious-secular debate.

Barak said he would seriously consider the plan proposed by Melchior, who as minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities has tackled religious-secular issues for the Barak government.

Israel’s chief rabbis, however, were less inclined toward compromise when it came to Barak’s planned reforms – especially his proposal to abolish the Religious Affairs Ministry.

At a stormy meeting Monday with the “Orthodox lobby” of legislators from the religious parties, the two chief rabbis confirmed that they had supported the idea in the past, feeling that the ministry and the religious councils across the nation that it governs are hotbeds of mismanagement.

The rabbis said they originally thought Barak’s plan was designed to improve the provision of religious services to local communities.

But in light of Barak’s other secular reforms, they added, they now decided that the plan to abolish the ministry was politically motivated.

“We call” on Barak, Justice Minster Yossi Beilin and “on all the national leadership to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to cease and desist from any process that contravenes the integral relationship between religion, state and peoplehood,” the rabbis announced, throwing down the gauntlet to Barak.

Meanwhile, the plan to erase the nationality clause from identity cards crossed a final hurdle this week, when the Shin Bet domestic security service announced that it would not oppose the move. In the past, security reasons have always been cited by those opposed to this measure.

The identity card currently defines the bearer as “Jew” by nationality, or else as Arab, Russian, American or some other non-Jewish designation.

At this time, several cases are pending before the High Court of Justice by people who were converted in Israel by non-Orthodox movements and are demanding the right to be designated as a Jew on their identity cards.

The removal of the nationality clause, while mitigating this aspect of the perennial “Who is a Jew” dispute, does not completely resolve it because the distinction between Jews and others will still be maintained in the state population registry.

But it is certainly seen by both sides in the dispute as a significant step toward severing the connection between the Orthodox establishment and the laws of the state when it comes to defining a citizen’s Jewishness.

In the past, the clause’s removal was, in fact, embraced by some Orthodox politicians as a way of taking the heat out of the dispute – by eliminating what is considered a blatant instrument of discrimination while at the same time retaining the bureaucratic categorization of the population.

But now, in the superheated political climate brought on by Barak’s secular revolution, compromise and flexibility are in retreat as both sides harden their positions.

For the Orthodox parties, the removal of the clause is the opening shot in a battle now threatening, as they see it, to sweep across Israeli society.

“Barak and Beilin state openly that they are proceeding to implement an entire secular agenda,” Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party thundered at Monday’s meeting of the Orthodox lobby.

He cited the premier’s pledge that El Al would by flying on Saturdays within a month, that public transportation would likewise operate on Saturdays and religious holidays and that civil marriages would be instituted. Under present law, only religious marriages – those sanctioned by the Orthodox establishment – are available in Israel.

Yahalom could also have mentioned Barak’s promise to complete Israel’s long- evolving Constitution. Draft legislation designed to enshrine certain basic rights has run into opposition from the Orthodox parties, which fear the laws will conflict with or even discriminate against religious precepts.

Opinion polls are meanwhile providing a consistent picture: Two-thirds of Israelis favor Barak’s secular revolution, while the remaining one-third of respondents oppose it.

Significantly, though, the same polls indicate a great degree of skepticism regarding how much of Barak’s program will, in fact, be implemented.

Indeed, Barak himself has made it clear that if the peace negotiations with the Palestinians overcome their final obstacles and move toward a final peace agreement, his domestic agenda will quickly be shoved back onto the back burner.

If that happens, Barak will likely try to woo back the Orthodox parties, especially the politically moderate Shas Party, into his coalition.

If that requires his abandoning the secular revolution, so be it.

The public’s skepticism also reflects a widespread assessment that, if the peace talks fail, the government’s days are numbered and new elections will take place late in 2000 or early in the new year.

No controversial legislation affecting the relationship between religion and state will move through the Knesset if this scenario unfolds.

But Barak maintains that if the peace talks fail, he will succeed in setting up a government with the Likud opposition that will be based, in part at least, on his secular agenda. This agenda, after all, is plainly appealing to many Likud voters, as the polls unmistakably show.

But, so far at least, Likud leader Ariel Sharon shows no signs of being wooed.

He favors a constitution, Sharon says. But only in consultation with all sectors of the public – including, presumably, the religious parties.

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