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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MK Avraham Poraz (Shinui) called on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Sunday to halt state funding for a Yom Kippur campaign, which in his words "encourages religiosity among secular Israelis". But legal experts rebuffed Poraz's claims.
Poraz was referring to an advertising campaign funded in part by the Prime Minister's Office, which calls on citizens to take part in prayer and discussions on Yom Kippur eve at 250 community centers across the nation.
In one radio commercial a young man recounts his positive experience last Yom Kippur with the liturgy and prayer.
"As a result of the prayers I experienced a feeling of belonging", he declares.
Poraz writes in his letter to Prime Minsiter Ariel Sharon, "It is not the state's role to use tax payer's money to finance a campaign that encourages people to embrace religion".
In an interview, Poraz said it would be unheard of to use state funds to encourage Muslims or Christians to celebrate the Ramadan or the Feast of the Tabernacles.
However, leading legal experts rejected Poraz's argument.
"Poraz has no legal basis for what he is claiming", said Professor Shimon Sheetrit of the Hebrew University, a legal expert in religion-state issues.
"The state finances synagogues and religious schools and it can fund a campaign like this also," he added.
"We are not in a state like the US that has a non-establishment clause or like France that is aggressively secular. We are in Israel, which is Jewish democratic state and provides funding for religious activity. About 95% of Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur. That is a clear consensus."
Asked whether the ad campaign preaches religious adherence, Sheetrit responded, "the young man in the ad said he feels a sense of belonging. That is not necessarily a religious statement, it is an expression of national pride."
Sheetrit said the present campaign was simply an attempt to educate people.
"If someone chooses to be irreligious I believe he or she should make that choice out of knowledge and familiarity with the tradition, not as an ignoramus."
Dr. Gidon Sapir, who lectures in constitutional law at Bar Ilan University and specializes in religion-state issues, said one of the central roles of the state is to attempt to inculcate citizens with specific values.
"It is perfectly legitimate for the state to launch a campaign to encourage its citizens to settle the Negev, visit museums, participate in sports, even to be more secular and skeptical or promote animal rights," said Sapir.
"It is unclear to me why religion has be singled out consistently as a value that lacks legitimacy."
Sapir also pointed out that Rabbi Michael Melchior, deputy minister for Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community is a well-known figure who has never been suspected of using religious coercion.
"There is clear proof that many Israeli Jews see Yom Kippur as a cultural, national holiday, not necessarily a religious holiday. Melchior is simply cultivating this perception.
"It is obvious that Melchior's goal is to preserve Jewish values common to all of us, not to push for adherence to religious ritual. In fact, commonly shared values are the figurative glue that holds together diverse groups in Israeli society."
Melchior said that the aim of the campaign was to emphasize the relevance of Jewish Holidays for all Jews.
"Our holidays have turned into the private property of a specific segment of our society and that's too bad", said Melchior, who began organizing ceremonies at community centers for all major Jewish holidays six years ago.
"We are not missionaries, nor do we have any intention of encouraging secular Israelis to be religious. We simply received requests to arrange alternative ceremonies outside synagogues in a more neutral environment such as community centers, kibbutzim and moshavim."
Melchior's office said that the year-round program costs NIS 1 million annually; NIS 180,000 is paid by the Prime Minister's Office. The rest is financed by private organizations.
Melchior thanked Poraz for bringing the issue of the Yom Kippur campaign to the forefront of the communications media, thus providing free advertisement.
The campaign is sponsored by the department for Torah education in the Education Ministry, Beyahad - Judaism, Society and Democracy, Tzohar Rabbis, and Amiel - Torah Stone.