Recent Israeli court decisions cut into power of ultra-Orthodox Jews

March 17, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Tucked unused beside the seat of bus driver Eyud Cohen yesterday were two signs for his bus route: a pink "10" if the bus was for women, a blue "10" if it was for men.

Unused, because the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who demanded and got separate buses for men and women in their neighborhoods, now ignore the signs.

"It didn't work. Nobody wanted to wait 20 minutes for the next bus," shrugged passenger Aaron Goldberg, dressed in the black hat and long overcoat of ultra-Orthodox -- called "haredim."

The issue of separate buses for men and women is only one battle in the long-running struggle between religious Jews and secular Jews over public policy.

Jews divided

Even as this week's news boils over with strife between Israelis and Palestinians, the conflict among Israel's Jews continues.

The haredim won a major victory when the Knesset, Israel's parliament, adopted a law this week banning the importation of non-kosher beef. It was the price the Shas religious party demanded for rejoining the government coalition.

TTC Last month, the ultra-Orthodox scored another success when Egged, the national bus company, agreed to a long-standing demand for separate buses for men and women in Jerusalem's religious neighborhoods.

"It was a good feeling for the religious that Egged gave in," said Mr. Goldberg, 27, who studies at a religious school.

The desire to separate men and women on the buses is "for clean thoughts," explained one haredi man riding the bus.

"Jewish law forbids us to think about women. So if you don't see them, it's best, so you don't think about them," he said.

That it did not work was only a minor hitch. The haredim and Egged officials are negotiating to come up with another plan. The ultra-Orthodox say they want curtains between the sexes on the same bus; Egged says that is a safety hazard.

Many are outraged

But others are outraged that the government-run company should make any concession to the religious, especially a concession that in most Western countries would smack of sex discrimination.

"It should not be that in the capital of Israel you have a government-run company separating men and women," complained Anat Hoffman, a Jerusalem councilwoman.

The clash pits the majority of Israelis against the 15 percent to 20 percent of the population that is ultra-Orthodox, with the haredim men conducting their lives strictly according to the dictates of their rabbis.

Israel has given the rabbinate authority over such matters as divorce, marriage, burials, and laws regulating food, business openings on Saturdays and many other matters of daily life.

Jews who balk at the rules of the rabbinate still must submit to their authority.

High court rulings

But in the last few months, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered rabbinical courts to obey state law, not religious law, in dividing property between a divorced couple.

It curbed a religious court's order requiring a woman to sell her home in a divorce case and another preventing a separated woman from traveling without her husband's consent.

Another high court ruling opened up to non-Orthodox Jews the Religious Councils, which distribute public funds for religious activities.

"There have been an accumulation of cases," said Yehoshua Schoffman, an attorney for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. "There's an increased trend in the court."

"They are interfering with internal affairs," said Moshe Friedman, a spokesman for the rabbinate. "The rabbinate clearly and unequivocally stated they will continue to rule only according to [Jewish religious] law."

"There's a battle between the religious and secular. It's a battle between light and dark," said Potachia Tritel, 22, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student. "Sometimes we win, and sometimes they win."

The ultra-Orthodox have long held political power. Their political parties serve as the swing vote in Israeli governments, giving them strength disproportionate to their numbers. For that reason, neither prime ministers nor the Knesset have been anxious to confront the haredim.

"They have used that position to squeeze every drop of power out of this situation," said Ms. Hoffman. That "has created such anger, such resentment" by Israelis.

"They are seen as the forces of the Medieval Age. This is the demise of their empire."

Many predict the erosion of ultra-religious powers will come from the courts through rulings such as the recent ones.

"It's very characteristic that when the legislature is reluctant to make laws in order to meet a new situation, the courts do," said Ariel Rosen-Zvi, dean of the faculty of law at Tel Aviv University.

A 'stalemate'

He said the court recognized, "There is stalemate that is hazardous to society, and can lead to eruptions and tension. Someone had to take the role to dismantle these tensions."

Mr. Friedman, the rabbinate official, said the Supreme Court's rulings are misguided.

For example, he said, the ruling that non-Orthodox Jews can serve on Religious Councils that distribute public funds for religious activities will not work.

"The rabbinate does not think it's possible to cooperate with non-Orthodox people in giving religious services," he said yesterday.

"They don't care about the Sabbath, about kashrut [kosher laws], about synagogues. They don't see eye-to-eye with us, and that's why they cannot be partners."

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