Analysis: Much ado about nothing?

It is doubtful whether any real changes will be made in the way religious services are provided in the Jewish state.

lieberman new 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lieberman new 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Olmert government's decision to reestablish the Religious Affairs Ministry (now called the Religious Services Ministry) and transfer control to the haredi Shas party has generated the expected knee-jerk antagonism from secular politicians opposed to consolidation of religious political power. But the public debate sparked by the move underlined the dearth of original thinking about how to improve religious services in a state in which citizenship and religion are irrevocably interlocked. Ministers who opposed the reinstitution of the ministry - such as Labor's Ehud Barak, Ami Ayalon and Isaac Herzog, and Kadima's Daniel Friedmann - seemed more concerned with freedom from religion than freedom of religion. They focused on attacking the Orthodox establishment instead of offering concrete ways of improving the way religious services are provided by a state that is defined as both democratic and Jewish. Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman voted against the move, because giving full control over religious services to Shas would only acerbate the discrimination suffered by his constituents. Many of Israel Beiteinu's supporters are FSU immigrants who are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox criteria, even though they were eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. These Israelis, who number around 300,000, are deprived of basic religious services. For instance, they cannot get married in Israel and often have difficulties being buried here as well. Strengthening Shas's hold on religious services means that the status quo will remain intact. But even before Shas's Yitzhak Cohen took full control of the ministry, the status quo was meticulously maintained. During the past four years religious affairs have been out of the hands of religious politicians. Nevertheless, absolutely no changes have been made in the way religious services are provided. During the years that religious affairs were run by the Prime Minister's Office, no new secular cemeteries were created. State-sponsored prefabricated buildings used as synagogues continued to be provided only to Orthodox congregations. Non-Orthodox rabbis, such as Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer, were denied recognition even though they enjoyed the support of the local community. Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Committee, the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, in commenting on the reinstitution of the ministry last week, admitted that very little headway had been made toward a more pluralistic approach to state-funded religious services since 2003, when the Religious Affairs Ministry was dismantled. In fact, that dismantlement was actually supported by modern Orthodox and haredi MKs. Politicians such as Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) and Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) hoped to stop the delegitimization of the Orthodox establishment by cleaning up their act and eliminating the rampant corruption and nepotism that plagued the ministry. According to this reasoning, reinstituting the ministry is actually in the best interests of secular politicians. If Shas reverts to its old tactic of using the ministry as a job source for cronies and corrupts religious services, secular interests stand to reap a profit. Pressure will build to break the Orthodox monopoly on religious services. However, what will take the place of Orthodoxy? Israel is not America, where more a third of the affiliated Jewish population identifies with Reform Judaism and there are more Conservative Jews than Orthodox Jews. Rather, Israelis tend to see Orthodoxy, with all its faults, as the only legitimate stream of Judaism. And those Israelis who are pushing for a total separation of synagogue and state are a minority. So regardless of whether Shas maintains control of the Religious Services portfolio or it once again becomes a department within the Prime Minister's Office, it is doubtful whether any real changes will be made in the way religious services are provided in the Jewish state.