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A state of Jews divided by a common religion
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A state of Jews divided by a common religion

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Beneath the continuing debate in Israel over a further 90-day settlement freeze, a series of religious confrontations have been brewing. These confrontations suggest — as was often noted by some of Israel’s founders — that when peace will come between Israel and its neighbors, the next goal will be to achieve peace between Israelis and Israelis.

Some of these disputes have been external. A few weeks ago, UNESCO, by a vote of 44-1 (with America casting the lone dissent), declared Muslim sovereignty over Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Last week, the Palestinian Authority declared, once again, that the Western Wall was not a Jewish holy site but a Muslim wall, an integral part of the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Haram-al-Sharif. The PA avowed that the wall as well as all religious sites in the Old City are under the control of the Waqf. Both of these decisions garnered only minimal publicity or international outcry.

Among Israelis, meanwhile, the Jerusalem municipality is fighting in the courts to permit public buses that travel through haredi (fervently Orthodox) neighborhoods to be segregated; i.e. women seated in the “rear of the bus.” To enforce this ban, bus drivers will only open the rear doors for women. The “compromise” apparently evolving will permit the Dan and Egged bus companies to allow segregation on these buses so long as there is no “coercion or violence.”

Similarly, a forthcoming concert honoring members of the IDF will be permitted to have certain sections of the audience separated and some mixed.

Rabbi Yehuda Shelow of Petach Tikva stood up to a ruling by the chief rabbi of Safed that sought to forbid Jews from renting homes to Arabs in that city (a ruling that apparently received the nod of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef). In Ha’aretz, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, of the community of Har Adar, declared that such action would “contradict the state’s Jewish character” and “undermine its definition as democratic.”

Police have now filed charges of embezzlement against haredi institutions that were manufacturing fake ID cards for non-existent students. The state was paying these yeshivas millions of shekels in monthly stipends for these phantom students.

Is it no wonder that recent polls in Israel suggest indicated that 80 percent of the Israeli public is either “discontent “(61 percent) or “not so content” (19 percent) about the status of religion and state. Fifty-six percent of those asked wanted a new government to be formed by Likud and Kadima without the religious parties. When the haredim were excluded from the sample, the number jumped to 65 percent.

The fight over conversion also appears to have reached the crisis stage on a number of fronts. Both within Israel and in the Diaspora, rabbis and lay people have fought over conversions performed outside of Israel, the need to resolve the Jewish status of many Russian immigrants, and Israel’s responsibility to the Falash Mura, Ethiopians who claim Jewish roots. The latest and perhaps ugliest flare-up is over recent immigrants to Israel who, having served in the IDF, historically were able to seek conversion through the military rabbinic courts. This procedure is not only being questioned by the Chief Rabbinate, but, in fact, disallowed. The Chief Rabbinate’s disregard for precedents set by their very own institution is seen as a sign of the further “haredization” of Israel’s religious establishment.

The rabbinate’s move prompted an extremely blunt and poignant public dissent by Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, the rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi and one of the heads of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. In an essay for Ynet and later New York’s Jewish Week, Gilad argued that the time has come to dissolve the rabbinate as it is now constituted, calling it irrelevant and out of touch with the vast majority of the citizens of Israel. He asserted that what was once an enlightened institution had become merely another extreme religious voice echoing the haredi rabbinate and community, disconnected from the national religious community as well as the secular Israeli citizenry.

Hanukka is the true holiday of miracles. Sadly, if many of these political/religious gaps are to be bridged, it may truly take a miracle, plus outstanding rabbinic leadership and political courage.

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