Return of the religious wars

Published in The Jerusalem Post on March 26, 2000

Poor Ehud Barak. Just when he needs domestic peace the most – as peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians move into the endgame – he faces a renewed series of challenges to his coalition over issues of religion and state.


Over the coming weeks Barak’s government will have to deal with a number of religious-secular hot potatoes, including legislation canonizing haredi draft exemptions, an expected Supreme Court decision about Reform and Conservative conversions, and MK Nahum Langenthal’s proposed legislation setting out a revised “status quo” agreement across a broad spectrum of religious-secular conflicts.


The recent spat between Shas and Meretz over funding for Shas’s school system and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s intemperate attack on Education Minister Yossi Sarid have significantly poisoned anew the religious-secular arena. This only will make it more difficult for Barak to finesse the upcoming hurdles.


Over one year ago, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the long-standing draft exemption arrangements for haredim, and it gave the government six months, then one year, to legislate an alternative. Time is now up.


The committee appointed by Barak to handle this, headed by retired Justice Zvi Tal, is recommending that haredi men be allowed to study Torah and defer army service until age 25 or 26. Then, they’ll be able to leave the yeshivot for a year of “adjustment”, following which they’ll have a number of reduced-time service options.


Neither the blanket authorization Tal accords to the deferment of army service by younger haredim (without any limit on the number of deferments — now up to 10 percent of those eligible for the draft and growing rapidly because of the Shas schools); nor the new “quickie” service options for older haredi men – are going to go over easy with Labor, Meretz and even NRP members of the coalition.


Secular high school students are threatening to buck the draft if the Tal guidelines are legislated. Many haredi yeshiva deans plan to fiercely fight the proposals too, for fear that men 25 years old and above will abandon the yeshivot. And if there is no agreement, imagine the coalition predicament when the High Court moves to ram army service down haredi throats!


In April, eleven justices of the Supreme Court sitting in special panel will rule on a series of Reform and Conservative challenges to the existing citizenship law, which recognizes only Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Unless Minister of Diaspora Affairs Rabbi Michael Melchior miraculously can cut a deal to head-off the confrontation, expect the High Court to strike down Orthodoxy’s monopoly in this matter.


As a result, the religious parties are sure to propose new conversion legislation to overrule Justice Aharon Barak and his High Court colleagues, sparking a new Israel-Diaspora, and a coalition, crisis. All this, just when Prime Minister Barak is going to need everyone’s support for a controversial accord with Syria.


Who is going to lobby Congress for the billions needed to finance a Golan withdrawal when American Reform and Conservative leaders are again up-in-arms over Orthodox conversion legislation in Israel?


Justice Barak’s agenda further conflicts with Prime Minister Barak’s agenda. In several recent speeches, Justice Barak has thickly hinted that Supreme Court-mandated civil marriage is coming next, probably before the year is out. Let’s see Ehud Barak maneuver around the resultant coalition crisis while handing over yet more land around Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat!


Into this morass, steps rookie MK Nahum Langenthal (NRP) with a broad-brush proposal to re-surface and legislate-anew the entire welter of religious-secular points of conflict.


Taking a page out of the Religious Kibbutz Movement and the Meimad platforms, Langenthal proposes a series of religious-secular trade-offs. In return for religious acquiescence in the operation of public transportation and the legal opening of places of entertainment on Shabbat, secular politicians are to agree to legislate tighter-then-ever restrictions on business and shopping activity on Shabbat.


Langenthal would have the inclusive Neeman Commission process for conversions legislated into law, but this would become the *only* route for conversions recognized in Israel (delegitimizing conversions performed abroad). He would initiate a civil marriage option for those unable to marry through the Rabbinate, initiate a civil burial option, and abolish the bloated, undemocratic religious councils. In “exchange”, more Jewish studies would be introduced in secular schools.


While Langenthal’s proposal seems a reasonable, even a desirable, alternative to the inevitable breakdown of the existing frameworks and agreements – it is unlikely ever to become law. Religious politicians fear – correctly so, I think – that they will “give” but not “get”. In other words, they’ll accede in allowing buses and discos on Shabbat, but never see one single kibbutz Shabbat shopping mall closed down.


In any case, Langenthal’s welcome creativity undoubtedly will roil the coalition in hot debate. Add a touch of ‘Darwish’ and a pinch of ‘Amalek’ – and the luckless Ehud Barak has an overflowing plate.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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