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October 2000

Barak Trying To Break Right-Wing Stranglehold


By Karen Nakamura

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak has courageously taken the bull by the horns. Whether he'll be able to hold on and tame the beast remains to be seen.

At the end of August, Barak, losing ground in peace negotiations and facing the possibility of the Palestinians declaring an independent state on September 13, stated what's been needed to be said for years. There is life in Israel beyond the heavy-handed manipulations of the right-wing Orthodoxy.

With his hands tied at the Camp David peace talks and, because of the right-wing, unable to deliver concessions already signed into agreement, Barak could do little but once again blame the Palestinians. What surprised many was when Arafat didn't raise a defiant fist and declare an independent state. Though there seemed to be no obvious reason, perhaps it lies with Barak's efforts to break the stranglehold of the extreme right.

During the Camp David time frame, all of the religious parties in Barak's parliamentary coalition withdrew their support, leaving, for the first time in decades, a wholly secular coalition in control. Spurred on by the long-held goals of the secular community, Barak appears to be taking advantage of the historical moment by declaring his intention to dissolve the influential Ministry of Religious Affairs. While there was some media skirmishes in August when he first declared his intentions, this quieted as most assumed he was posturing for re-election. What surprised them was when, in September, Barak's cabinet began actually doing what they said they would.

One of the first acts was to begin the legal process of removing the need to state one's religion on ID cards. Barak then stated that travel will soon be allowed on the Sabbath along with shopping. For the first time El Al Airline flights would be scheduled on the Sabbath and the airline itself privatized. He also declared that state-supported religious schools would have to include some secular subjects such as civics, mathematics and English. Previously exempt religious students will have to serve two years in service to the country whether in the army or doing non-military work.

The biggest challenge, by far, is that of dismantling the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It is this ministry, along with its civil counterpart, the Rabbinate, that has had, since the inception of the Israeli state, a monopoly on marriage requirements. For instance, any reform couple in Israel could be arrested for co-habitation because they were not married in an Orthodox ritual. Civil marriage would now be legal. More importantly, it was the Rabbinate who dictated who was a Jew or not. In this contentious issue, the Rabbinate says only those abiding within the Orthodoxy are true Jews, a bone of contention among Reform and Conservative Jewry.

The government has also been cracking down on border police who are known to beat and harass Palestinians for little or no reason and on corruption within, such as with Shas leader and long time member of Parliament, Aryeh Deri, sentenced to three years for bribery and misappropriating state funds. It is here that some of the kickback from the right will come when the Knesset re-convenes in late October. In the Deri affair, for instance, the thousands of Sephardi supporters camped outside the Ma’asiyahu Prison have been joined by Ashkenazi haredim members, united in spite of a traditional divide, in their defiance of Barak's policies.

Whether the Barak secular coalition can stand on its own is hotly debated. Speaking before the United Jewish Appeal in New York during his visit to the United Nations recently, Barak said he "never initiated a secular revolution." Rather, he is working to create Israel's first constitution and developing a "modern , democratic state" and still be sensitive to the needs of the religious community "We do not intend to separate religion from the state, we are more modest. We intend to separate religion from politics."

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