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Israel: Secular And Religious Jews Battle Over Country's Identity

  • Charles Recknagel



Jerusalem, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When Israelis go to the polls next week, their voting will partly reflect a growing cultural war between the country's secular majority and its Orthodox minority.

The struggle is most frequently expressed in a variety of disputes over where public transportation can operate on the Jewish sabbath, whether businessmen can import non-kosher meat, and whether only Orthodox rabbis may oversee conversions to Judaism.

But beneath the arguments lies a basic difference in how Israelis regard the concept of their country as the world's only Jewish state and what role they want the Jewish religion to play in its public life. The conflict has reached what many analysts says are crisis proportions as small religious parties have become increasingly active in politics over the past two decades and now wield significant power.

Bernard Susser, a professor of political science at Bar-Illan University in Tel Aviv, says that secular and religious Jews are battling over the future identity of Israel.

"It is a matter of how the country will be identified. Will it be enclavic, will it be overwhelmingly and densely Jewish or will Jewishness be a matter of national identity subsumed under other categories? Will this be a Western country with Jewish peculiarities, or will it be a Jewish country with Western peculiarities?"

Susser says that today Israelis increasingly identify themselves with one of two conflicting visions of their society.

One vision -- that of Israel's founders -- regards Israel as a secular democracy populated by Jews and governed by civil law. That vision is attractive both to the non-observant and religious Jews who regard Israel as a Western country. Very often these are people who came originally from Europe, value modernism and compose the wealthier segment of Israeli society.

The other vision wants Israel to be a more traditional society in which Jewish law and custom should govern not only the lives of the observant but also rule areas of public life. It appeals both to the ultra-orthodox and to religious people with traditional values. The latter often are people who come from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran and compose the poorer elements of the Jewish population. Both they and the ultra-orthodox feel suppressed by the elite and see religious and traditional values as an alternative system.

These divisions have existed in Israel since the country's founding, but what is new, Susser says, is that the splits now reinforce one another and define two broad communities. The trend can be seen in a number of small parties which rally supporters using a single ultra-religious, right-wing, anti-elite vocabulary.

Susser says one of the most successful of these parties is Shas, an ultra-orthodox Sephardic group which has mobilized many moderately religious but traditional Sephardic Jews into a powerful voting bloc. The party uses its political clout to direct state funds into a network of schools and welfare centers in disadvantaged Sephardic communities. The schools emphasize religious over civic studies and secular critics say they encourage students to give higher allegiance to Shas's ultra-orthodox rabbis than to state laws.

"The sense of the Jewishness of the Jewish state together with the sense of ethnic suppression or ethnic exploitation, they tend to take on a single complexion -- which is, of course, the secret of the Shas party that very successfully manipulates religious and ethnic themes together and appeals mostly to non-ultra-orthodox Sephardic Jews."

As the smaller parties have gained political weight, they have aggressively pushed forward values which bring them into sharp conflict with Israel's secular mainstream. Last year, ultra-religious parliamentary deputies forced cancellation of part of the swearing-in ceremony for President Ezer Weizman because they objected to its inclusion of a mixed singing group of male and female soldiers.

Orthodox groups have so far unsuccessfully pressed for bans on football games on the Jewish holy day of Saturday and sought to label products as to whether their manufacturers are Sabbath-observant.

At the same time, secular and orthodox parliamentarians regularly clash over special religious exemptions which currently permit some 28,000 young men in ultra-orthodox religious schools to avoid compulsory military service.

The smaller parties' demands for a more religion- and tradition-based society irritate secular Israelis. Polls show that only one in five Jews in Israel is actively religious and only a small percentage of those are ultra-orthodox.

But the religious parties have acquired political clout way beyond their size because of their ability to act as swing votes in helping determine the outcome of Israel elections. The country's two main and secular-based parties, Likud and Labor, are more or less evenly matched and must make alliances with smaller parties to form governments.

Orthodox religious parties made up a third of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition following the last parliamentary elections in 1996 and won control of several key ministries. The same parties helped to bring down Netanyahu's coalition at the start of this year when they refused to go along with further Israeli withdrawals on the West Bank under the US-brokered Wye Accord. The religious parties regard the West Bank as the heartland of historical Israel.

So far, the power of the smaller religious parties shows no signs of diminishing, even as the biggest of them -- Shas -- has been rocked by scandal. Last month, Shas's political head, Aryeh Deri, was convicted of corruption and sentenced to four years in prison. Deri, who had been serving as Interior Minister, was convicted among other things of illegally channeling large amounts of state money to his own party.

But even in disgrace, Deri is likely to remain a powerful broker on the Israeli political scene. Only one candidate, Ehud Barak of the Labor-led One Israel coalition, has said he will refuse to negotiate with Deri and that he should step down as Shas's leader. But Netanyahu says he will continue to deal with Deri while the Shas leader appeals his conviction to the Supreme Court. In response, Deri has accused Barak of starting a campaign against the Torah and recommended to the rabbis who govern Shas that they endorse Netanyahu.

Susser predicts that the religious parties will once again have a major influence as a swing vote in Monday's election.

"The Likud will form a coalition with right-wing groups including ultra-orthodox parties. The Labor Party has tried to co-opt some of the religious vote by including them within this One Israel, as they call the party now, a left-wing religious party to relieve them of this image of militant cleric-baiters."

Analysts predict that the cultural -- and increasingly political -- battles among Israelis over how they see the future of their state will get worse and not better in the years ahead.

Susser points out that for decades the relentless push-and-pull of Israel's struggle with neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians has been an incentive for Israelis to paper over their differences.

But today, with Israel at peace with Egypt and Jordan and locked into a fitful process with the Palestinians, the Israeli-Arab struggle is losing its central grip on Israel's character. As it does, Susser says, Israelis will increasingly have to deal with their differences among themselves.

((This second part of a three-part RFE/RL series on Israel's election looks at how a growing cultural war between secular and Orthodox Jews influences voting. The third part looks at the candidacy of an Israeli-Arab for prime minister.)

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