Jewish soldier's reburial sparks furor over power of ultra-Orthodox in Israel

December 30, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

TEL AVIV, Israel -- They moved the grave of Amir Fisch; dug him up, filled the old pit with sand and lowered his corpse into a new hole 20 paces away.

The Jewish soldier was buried too close -- for the army's chief rabbi -- to Amos Yarkoni, a war hero who started the army's elite Bedouin tracker unit, and who lost his arm and leg in separate battles.

Too close, because Mr. Yarkoni was an Arab.

The decision to move the Jewish soldier's grave in Tel Aviv's military cemetery this week brought an outpouring of protest. It highlighted the gap between most Israelis and the Orthodox religious establishment that controls many aspects of life.

"It was disgraceful," fumed Israeli Cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni. "The person responsible for insulting Yarkoni's status should be dismissed."

"My decision was based on Jewish law," retorted Maj. Gen. Gad Navon, the army rabbi. He was only following the Orthodox religious rules, which say Jews should not be buried next to non-Jews.

The rules of the Orthodox dictate a wide variety of Israel's everyday life -- burials, marriages, business openings, bus transportation on Saturdays, even the food in the grocery stores.

Many secular Israelis resent the control by the ultra-Orthodox, who make up less than 20 percent of the population.

"There is a deep feeling that the religious in Jerusalem have too great an influence," said Zev Katz, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading secularist. "The issues separating religious and non-religious are very serious. And the religious bloc is becoming more and more fundamentalist."

Not that the so-called seculars have abandoned Jewish values and practices. A poll of nearly 2,400 Israelis in late 1991 by the Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research found that most people observe at least some of the traditions.

For example, while the modern urban lifestyle of "secular" Tel Aviv seems an antithesis to the scowling black-cloaked religiosity of Jerusalem, the study found that two-thirds of all Israelis observe the Sabbath, at least by lighting candles or preparing a special meal. About 90 percent follow the kosher eating rules at least some time; more than 70 percent participate in a Passover Seder, fast on Yom Kippur and light Hanukkah candles, and more than 80 percent subscribe to such ceremonies as a bar mitzvah or traditional marriage.

"Israelis are committed to the Jewish traditions," said Shlomit Levy, the senior researcher for the study. "What's really common to all of them is the values: having a Seder, having children knowing something about the Jewish culture."

Most prefer separation

But the poll showed that 56 percent of Israelis lean toward a severance of state and religion, and a majority favor instituting civil marriages, and two-thirds want movie theaters to open and buses to run on the Sabbath. Less than a third of the respondents consider relations between religious and non-religious as good.

"They don't want Jewish tradition imposed on them," she said. "They want to be selective in what they observe."

In many areas of life here, they do not have such options. The Orthodox rabbinate has acquired a monopoly over some areas through the deference shown by Israeli governments to the rabbis and through years of power accumulated by their pivotal political role.

They have blocked the import of non-kosher meat. No marriage is legal in Israel unless it is performed by an Orthodox rabbi. Many public streets are closed to traffic on the Sabbath, as are movie theaters and other entertainment. Burials must be performed by Orthodox rules.

"Why is it that a soldier from a secular kibbutz must be subject to an Orthodox burial, a funeral ritual which is alien to the lifestyle he has taken?" asked Uri Regev, a rabbi of the Reform movement of Judaism and director of the Israel Religious Action Center.

U.S. branches unrecognized

Rabbi Regev cannot legally marry two Jews. The more liberal Reform and Conservative movements -- branches of Judaism common in the United States -- are unrecognized here, virtually "underground movements," Rabbi Regev noted.

"There's a serious infringement on the rights to marry, the right to establish a family as one sees fit," he said.

He sees no contradiction between the study showing widespread observance of Jewish customs and an accompanying resentment of the ultra-Orthodox. "The same individual who says, 'I am observant,' will say, 'I don't want the state run by the religious establishment,' " he noted. "There's a growing gap between the average Israeli and those insisting on pushing religion down their throats with the rule of the state."

The controversy over the Fisch burial struck that chord. The 26-year-old staff sergeant died Saturday, killed with his own weapon in a suspected suicide.

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