Poraz's peeve

Shinui's cranky attacks on religion tend to paint it into an extremist corner.

poraz avraham shinui 88 (photo credit: poraz 88)
poraz avraham shinui 88
(photo credit: poraz 88)
Shinui styles itself as a “centrist” party, but its cranky attacks on the most broad-minded and ecumenical manifestations of religion tend to paint it into an extremist corner. This year, as last, Shinui MK and former interior minister Avraham Poraz attacked the government for partially funding an increasingly popular program to introduce secular Israelis to the Jewish experience of prayer on Yom Kippur. The program, started six years ago by then deputy minister Michael Melchior, invites Israelis, including many who do not attend services even on Yom Kippur, for educational events in public places such as community centers. Poraz wrote in a letter to the prime minister that “it is neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the state’s responsibility to fund a campaign using taxpayers’ money to persuade people to become observant Jews and take part in Yom Kippur prayers. ... The state has more pressing issues to attend to than to waste money on an unnecessary campaign.” Sometimes one wonders what country Poraz thinks he’s living in. “Poraz has no legal basis for what he is claiming,” said Hebrew University Professor Shimon Sheetrit, a legal expert on religion-state relations and former minister of religious affairs. “The state finances synagogues and religious schools and it can fund a campaign like this too,” he told The Jerusalem Post. Other countries, such as the US and France, pride themselves on separating “church and state,” but Israel is different. This is not to say that the balance that has been struck here is an ideal one. We have argued in this space that the official rabbinate and religious parties have often done more harm than good for the status of Judaism in the Jewish state. But even Poraz would not argue that the state should abstain from promoting secular civic values, such as the importance of democracy. Similarly, it should be acceptable for the state to participate in a mostly privately funded educational effort that does not foist religion on people, but fulfills a real desire to learn something about their heritage. Perhaps Poraz does not realize what fragile things democratic societies are. We often pretend that they are automatic, like the air we breath, not dependent on any cultivation of values. Well, just as clean air cannot really be taken for granted, neither can the values that sustain democracy. One of those values is mutual respect between widely divergent groups. A program that noncoercively introduces the secular public to some basic religious concepts is a good example of bridging societal rifts that endanger democracy. Poraz would rightly insist that certain civic values and knowledge be taught in religious schools. But just as all our children should learn about democracy, they should also learn about religion their own and that of their fellow citizens. Rather than complaining about Melchior’s program, perhaps Poraz should start his own aimed at the religious public. While he might not have much luck working with the ultra-orthodox community, there is a sizable religious public that might be open to supplementing the civics education it already receives in the schools with adult discussion groups. What the thousands of participants in the Melchior program (called Beyahad) are saying is that they reject the idea of religious monopoly over Judaism. Similarly, there should be no secular monopoly over defining what it means to be both a Jewish and democratic state. One very democratic aspect of the Melchior program is that it demonstrates how Israelis across a wide spectrum of observance and backgrounds can connect in their own way with Yom Kippur, one of the few days of the year that almost all Jews are conscious of their Jewishness. Perhaps it is this consciousness that bothers Poraz. But he should be the first to celebrate the sort of religious pluralism and tolerance that Melchior’s and other such community-based educational efforts represent. If Shinui as a party wants to strengthen the forces of religious tolerance, it should be joining in such efforts, not attacking them.