Analysis: Religious parties picking the wrong Pessah fight

The real question arising out of the hametz battle is: Why can't they see that they are winning?

matzot 88 (photo credit: )
matzot 88
(photo credit: )
The religious parties went to bat on Monday for the place of Judaism in Israeli public life. At least, that's what they said they were doing. In reacting to a court ruling by Jerusalem Municipal Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Zaban permitting the display of hametz inside restaurants while maintaining the legal prohibition outside on the street, haredi politicians did not hold back. MK Shmuel Halpert (United Torah Judaism) blasted Bar-Asher-Zaban for placing a "stumbling block for many Jews," who will presumably be drawn helplessly to the hametz they would otherwise have avoided. "I am doubtful whether there is more than one devil who shares her opinion," he opined. MK Avraham Ravitz said he wished to "safeguard the Jewish symbols of the state," protecting them from what he termed "liberal terrorism." What these haredi MKs did not say - perhaps because they did not notice it - was that the judge also affirmed the legal prohibition of displaying hametz in public during the Pessah holiday. The right of the Israeli Jewish majority to have its moral or religious prohibitions reflected in the public sphere, similar to the "blue laws" of the United States, is upheld regularly by Israel's judiciary, often when it is hardly necessary to do so. Yom Kippur is one prominent example. With no law or ordinance, no fines or enforcement, nearly every single Jew in Israel finds some way to observe Yom Kippur as a sacred, unique day. Most fast, and nearly all do not drive, taking to the empty streets on foot or bicycle. For reasons of cultural affiliation or religious belief, Israelis en masse, secular and religious, haredi and Reform, share an annual day of introspection in a public sphere undisturbed by traffic or noise. The near-universal observance of Yom Kippur, like the approval reflected in polls among Israelis for keeping hametz out of the public sphere, is a success of Israeli religion that arises from Israelis' own deep respect for the religious foundations of their identity. In ways that do not necessarily register in the religious parties' social awareness, this identification with religion is growing throughout Israeli society. The real question arising out of the religious parties' public hysteria over the court ruling is not, as some secular liberals have put it, why they seek to inflict religious coercion on their countrymen. Rather, it is: Why can't the religious see that they are winning? The reaction witnessed in the Knesset on Monday is counterproductive to their stated goal - increasing religion's role in Israeli public life. The dichotomy suggested by Halpert, with social "terrorists" against the vindication of Holocaust survival, shows these politicians are in a fight that does not reflect Israeli reality. In politicizing the question, they have strengthened those who say that their goal is not social or religious, but political. When Israeli life is increasingly religious (and even, to a growing extent, Orthodox) how can they perceive themselves under siege of "liberal terrorism?" In confusing religious affiliation with religious political victories, they send the message that parliamentary politicking has shifted their focus from the former to the latter.