Orthodox successes chill secular Israel Many fear election heralds rigid climate of religious control

June 08, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Life may not be the same in Israel, if the parties representing Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews translate their election successes into power. Israelis have begun to grasp the possible changes, now that some of the parties' demands have leaked to the press.

Vladimir Marketzio, a Romanian Jew, is wondering about the future of his nonkosher delicatessen in Jerusalem that specializes in pork.

"In the past, we had graffiti on the walls and rocks thrown at the windows. Maybe that will happen again," he said.

Professor Amihai Mazar, head of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, is wondering if the ultra-Orthodox demands for control over excavations would stop archaeology in the Holy Land.

"We won't agree to work this way. It would be a closure of all archaeological activity in the country," he said.

Alice Shalvi, head of a women's rights group, is worried that women will find it harder to get married or get divorced, because of the authority reserved to Orthodox rabbis.

"People are suddenly realizing the implications of the vote. They are saying we voted for Netanyahu, but we didn't expect all of this, too," she said.

The May 29 general election that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power as prime minister also gave three religious parties a record 23 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset. That gives them huge bargaining power, as Netanyahu and his Likud bloc seek to build a Knesset majority, and their initial demands to Netanyahu reflect that strength.

The parties have demanded greater government financial support for religious schools and other institutions, strict rules on social issues ranging from restricting abortion to closing businesses on the Sabbath, and a monopoly for the Orthodox over conversions, marriages, divorces and burials.

The demands are only an opening position for bargaining. Likud officials have asked the parties to scale back the list. But there is little doubt that the price of their support in the next government will be substantial.

"Behind closed doors they will ask for everything," predicted Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University. "They want to totally correct the last three years when the religious parties were not in the government."

"We're aware of the fear that people in Israel have today because we grew so fast," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a leader of United Torah Judaism, one of the ultra-Orthodox groups. "People shouldn't compare us to Iran. We are all afraid of fundamentalism. We will not be so militant."

The ultra-Orthodox, distinguished by the men's black frock coats and black hats, account for an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of Israeli Jews. Their two parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, won 14 seats. Their political outlook is largely supported by the National Religious Party, which won nine Knesset seats and whose members endorse a mix of nationalism and religion.

Social chasm

Their combined strength highlights the chasm in Israel between the religious and the secular. That schism has produced long-running disputes over social issues such as observance of the Sabbath. The religious have fought to stop public buses from running, to close businesses and to bar traffic from Orthodox neighbors.

The "secular," nonobservant Jews, such as those who pack Tel Aviv's beaches on Saturday and the Saturday soccer games, object to such restrictions. They also resent the exemption from military service granted yeshiva students, and the substantial government funds that go to the religious minority because of the political power wielded by the parties.

Given that a clear majority of Israelis are secular, the strength of -- the religious parties was a surprise of the election.

"People in Israel don't want to lose their Jewish identity," Ravitz said. "They think that we in the Knesset were sent there to keep the Jewish identity. We don't want to mix in the private life of the individual, but I think we'll have to correct a few laws."

The "laws" most clearly in the sights of the ultra-Orthodox are Supreme Court decisions and other rulings that have chipped away at their power.

In recent years, the court has slightly cracked the monopoly of ultra-Orthodox over conversions to Judaism in Israel, membership in quasi-governmental religious councils, and divorce and burial proceedings.

"They want to nullify any advances we have made," said Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, an official of Judaism's tiny Reform movement in Israel. Although the Reform and Conservative movements account for the majority of Jews outside Israel, those branches of Judaism have been kept minuscule in Israel by the Orthodox monopoly.

To be recognized as a valid marriage in Israel, for example, a wedding ceremony must be performed by a rabbi approved by the governing body, the Rabbinate, which is controlled by the Orthodox. To convert to Judaism -- a social necessity for thousands of non-Jewish spouses of immigrants -- one must promise to lead an Orthodox life.

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