Beilin and Gafni parry over separation of religion and state

Degel Hatorah MK would forgo 'Jewish state' for 'real democracy' that respects minorities.

beilin 224.88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
beilin 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Degel Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni said Thursday he "would be in favor" of separation of religion and state in Israel - as advocated by former Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin - if "both represented the majority of Israelis, if everyone were able to live, marry, die and be buried as he wants." He was speaking at a panel consisting of Beilin, the daughter of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former mayor of Bnei Brak, a haredi publisher and a Bar-Ilan University sociologist. Gafni told the audience at the discussion, entitled "Haredi Jews in Israel: Living Together While Living Apart" and the only one held in Hebrew at the Facing Tomorrow presidential conference that "the problem is that Yossi and I don't represent the majority of Israel. A total of 70 to 80 percent are traditional and won't agree to separate religion from the state. We can't do it now, but only when [almost] all are haredim." Born in Tel Aviv and raised in the development town of Ofakim, the bearded, black-suited Gafni said he would be willing to forgo Israel being a "Jewish state" if it were instead a "real democracy" in which minorities were respected and given all they deserve. He went on to say that "secular Jews dried the swamps, established the state and founded the army" and were regarded and regarded themselves as a success. Haredi Jews who survived the Holocaust, said Gafni, came here fighting for physical survival and to preserve Torah. But they were greeted by derision "and the socialists' cutting the sidecurls of Yemenite immigrants." Some secular Jews came to tour Mea She'arim in Jerusalem and - "seeing haredim in black clothes in a heat wave were amused and viewed them as a passing episode." But when there were "no more swamps to dry," Gafni maintained, secular Jews here had no surviving ideology. Haredi Jews, he insisted, kept their ideology while stressing Jewish education, family life and increasing their numbers via the "Jewish womb." "Secular education collapsed," the haredi MK said, but the haredi child gets only a quarter to a third of what the secular child gets in state funds for education. Beilin said that if haredi MKs agreed to separation of religion and state, it could be a "bridge to understanding." But he attacked haredim for refusing to recognize non-Orthodox movements in Judaism that constitute the majority of Diaspora Jewry. However, if haredim grow to 20% or more of the population, this would be a problem, he said. Dudi Zilbershlag, the haredi newspaper publisher and founder of the Meir Panim soup kitchen charity, said the vast majority of haredim are "loyal to the state," but they have an "unfair, bad image of being violent and hating the state." He praised the Shas Party for inspiring haredim to be active and involved in national affairs and for demanding opportunities for housing, education and other matters they care about in addition to more Torah observance. Zilbershlag described Beilin - who is generally hated by haredim - as being "always ready to listen and try to understand the other." Sociologist Dr. Nissim Leon predicted that with a large number of haredim immigrating from wealthy countries and used to consumerism, working and academic education, there will be a divide between them and native-born haredim who are poor and eschew higher education. Former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz said housing for young couples is one of the biggest problems, and that 80,000 apartments are needed for them over the coming years. "In the past, haredim lived in mixed neighborhoods and towns," but now they want to live alone because they need schools, stores, education and standards of modesty that are unavailable among the non-haredi population, he said. Modern Orthodox Jews were almost disregarded by the panel, but members of the audience objected strongly to many of the haredi panel members' remarks.