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Israelis Debate A "Civic Agenda" Which Would Separate Synagogue and State

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 2000

Prior to his announcement that new Israeli elections would be held, Prime Minister Ehud Barak had proposed a "civic agenda" for his country which would lead toward the separation of synagogue and state.  

Included in his proposal is a written constitution, legal options for civil marriage and burial, national service for all (including Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews), and the abolishment of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  

Barak's supporters say that the proposal is the heart of his second-term domestic policy. In the end, they say, Israel would be a vastly more democratic country, and the power of the Orthodox over civilian affairs would effectively be ended.  

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that, "The first step in Barak's secular revolution'...calls for removing the nationality clause from the identity card every Israeli must carry. Removing the clause could help solve a long-running dispute over conversions...since, the state would no longer be responsible for defining who is a Jew...The identity card currently defines the bearer as "Jew" by nationality, or else as Arab, American or some other non-Jewish designation. The removal of the nationality clause is seen by both sides in the dispute as a significant step toward severing the connection between the Orthodox establishment and the laws of the state when it comes to defining a citizen's Jewishness... Opinion polls are...providing a consistent picture: Two-thirds of Israelis favor Barak's secular revolution; the rest oppose it."  

Israel's two chief rabbis have joined Orthodox politicians in the fight against Barak's proposed reforms. The Orthodox have called the Barak plan a "culture war," "splitting the nation," and "destroying the Jewish character of the state." (Jerusalem Post, Sept. 1, 2000)  

Israel's minister of social and Diaspora affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchier of the Meimad Party, has announced his own proposals for civic reform.  

He has proposed a five-day work-week—giving the nation a day off on Saturdays as well as Sundays—to enable Israelis to avoid doing shopping and other chores on the Sabbath. He has also called for launching public transportation lines on Saturdays in line with the needs of each locality, rather than in all communities and has supported eliminating a citizen's nationality and religion from identity cards and setting up a framework for civil marriages. Each of these steps, supporters argue, represent an important move in the direction of synagogue-state separation.  

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told The Jerusalem Report (Sept. 25, 2000) that the government fully intends to institute civil reforms. He said that, "For years, Labor has had two main goals—peace and the civil-social agenda. The first, because it a question of our very existence, always took precedence. So we neglected the second. Other parties, like Sinui and Meretz, made political capital out of this. But as long as we had to abide by the coalition pact with Shas, our hands were tied."  

A leading Conservative rabbi in Israel says that the "civil reform" plan consists of "healthy proposals" that would not hurt religion, but would move Israel towards separation between religion and government. Rabbi Reuven Hammer believes these proposals would combat "a very dangerous trend" in Israel of the fervently Orthodox wanting to "impose more and more religion" on the country.  

Hammer a professor of rabbinic literature at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. says that civil marriage "is extremely important because large numbers of people have to go out of the country to be married."

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.