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Friday, February 13, 2009

Monkey wrenches in the wheels of coalition building?

Binyamin Netanyahu may have had a monkey wrench thrown into his narrow right coalition on Thursday. There is one issue in Israel that is more volatile than anything having to do with our national security. It's anything having to do with the connection between religion and state.

There's a long history here. Most of Israel's founders rebelled against religion and regarded Zionism (or as I have referred to it in the past Israelism) as replacing the religion that sustained the Jewish people for 2,000 years in which most of us were exiled from this land. But many of the Jews from Arab countries who arrived here in the 1950's were at least traditional if not out and out religious. And many immigrants since then - including most from North America in the last twenty years or so - are religious.

Even before the State was established, a modus vivendi was reached between the religious Jews and the secular Zionists here. In the early 1950's, David Ben Gurion, the country's first Prime Minister, reached an agreement with Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish) pursuant to that modus vivendi essentially became law, and the then-current 'status quo' between religion and state would be preserved. As a practical matter, this affects three areas of daily life in Israel.

One is the question of conversion. Although the Knesset failed to adopt an explicit amendment to this effect when it was raised - principally in the 1970's - de facto, only Orthodox conversions are accepted in Israel. This is known as giyur k'halacha in Hebrew, that conversion follows the halacha, which is generally understood to mean the Orthodox Jewish law. (In a nutshell, conversion under Orthodox Jewish law requires circumcision for males, or the letting of a drop of blood from the penis if a man is already circumsised medically when he comes to convert, immersion in a mikve - a Jewish ritual bath - and an undertaking to do one's best to follow all Jewish laws. It is this third criterion that is the real issue today). Conversion was already a hot button here in the 1970's when people converted by the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States started showing up and trying to declare aliya (that they were immigrating to Israel as Jews under the Law of Return), and became more of an issue with the massive Russian aliya in the late 1980's and early 1990's. One can declare aliya if one had one Jewish grandparent - poignantly, Hitler's YMS"H (may his name be obliterated) definition of a Jew was adopted into law here - but that doesn't mean that the Rabbinate will recognize him or her as a Jew.

The second area affected is matters of 'personal status,' that is marriage and divorce. Going back even to the Mandatory (pre-State) period, one may only marry and divorce in this country through the institution's of one's own religion (whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim). This means that persons of different religions cannot legally marry in Israel. It also means that persons who are forbidden to marry ordinary Jews under Jewish law (for example, children born out of adulterous relationships) have no legal way of marrying in Israel. Non-religious Israelis who do not wish to be married by the Rabbinate have long circumvented these laws by traveling abroad or even by proxy marriages in Nicaragua (which allows such marriages). Once a marriage is recognized by another country, it is legally recognized in Israel.

The third area in which daily life here is affected by the status quo - which is also a hot button but not really one of the issues I'm about to discuss - is that women may declare that they are religious and be exempted from the army altogether, and men may legally obtain a deferral of their army service so long as they are studying full time in a yeshiva (Jewish religious school). This third item does not appear to be at issue as part of the monkey wrench, although it could come up in the future.

There is also a fourth area - it is technically forbidden to raise pigs in Israel and non-Kosher meat is therefore not widely sold here. But again, that's not the issue this time.

All of this is by way of over-simplified (yes, really) introduction so that you will understand what is at stake here. The role of religion in daily life in the first two matters discussed above has long been anathema to the Russian community in Israel - many of whose members are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Avigdor Lieberman is himself a Russian immigrant and many of his constituents are directly affected by the first two areas I noted above. They are not Jews under halacha and therefore cannot legally marry here. And they cannot legally convert to Judaism either because they cannot satisfy the Rabbinate that they will truly undertake to live as Jews under Jewish law.

JPost is reporting on Friday that the Likud has committed to Avigdor Lieberman that it will support his positions on the questions of conversions and civil marriages. But to form a narrow coalition, the Likud also needs the support of two Haredi ('ultra-Orthodox) parties: The Shas party (11 seats) and the United Torah Judaism party (5 seats). As you might imagine, the two of them are not going to join a coalition that allows easy conversion or civil marriages as part of its guidelines.
The Jerusalem Post reported exclusively Thursday that Lieberman was ready to endorse Netanyahu rather than Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, provided that Netanyahu pledged to push through his demands for civil unions and an eased conversion process, but that if those two demands were not met, he would back Livni.


While the issues of civil unions and conversion could derail coalition-building due to Shas's objections, Likud officials said they were sure they could bridge the gaps between Israel Beiteinu and the haredim in order to allow them to both join a coalition under Netanyahu.

Former cabinet minister Yaakov Neeman, who mediated a compromise on conversion in 1998, will be tasked with mediating between the two parties if Peres appoints Netanyahu to form a government.

"There are ways to mediate between Shas and Israel Beiteinu on these issues and Neeman is the best man to do it," Likud MK Yuli Edelstein said [Edelstein is a religious Jewish Russian immigrant. CiJ]. "Israel Beiteinu must act wisely on civil unions. We aren't in a campaign anymore and we have to work to find a common denominator. If Lieberman wants Tzipi we can't stop him, but if he wants Netanyahu there are ways to bridge the gaps."

In an effort to prevent Netanyahu from obtaining the support of a majority of the legislature before Peres begins consultations with the Knesset factions, Kadima sent former Shas chairman Arye Deri to Lieberman on Wednesday, asking him to allow Livni to form a government instead [Deri is a known dove who is currently barred from the Knesset due to a bribery conviction. That bar expires within the next year, which may precipitate a leadership battle between Deri and current leader Eli Yishai in Shas. CiJ].

"Bibi is the same old liar he always was," Deri told Lieberman, according to Kadima officials. "He won't keep his promises on civil unions."


"Our views on the civil agenda, including civil marriage and conversion, are virtually identical," Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner said. "We have an obligation to hundreds of thousands of Kadima voters who want an immediate change in the electoral system and in the registration of couples."

[Yisrael Beiteinu MK Stas] Meseznikov told [Kadima MK and negotiator Chaim] Ramon that Israel Beiteinu was unwilling to compromise with Shas on civil unions in order to allow a right-wing coalition to be formed.

Meseznikov said after the meeting that he issued demands to both Likud and Kadima regarding the next coalition's guidelines and he was waiting for detailed responses in hopes of a government being formed as soon as possible.


At a meeting of the incoming Likud MKs on Wednesday, the entire faction endorsed Netanyahu's decision to try to form a government with the 65 lawmakers on the Right, before negotiating with Kadima.

Likud officials said parties on the Right could be given certain portfolios but told that if Kadima joined the coalition, they would have to relinquish them.

"It's not worth the risk of losing a coalition with the Right for a possibility with Kadima that might not happen," Edelstein said. "Better a narrow coalition in the hand than a coalition with Kadima on the tree."

Netanyahu met Thursday with the heads of the two religious-Zionist parties, National Union and Habayit Hayehudi. The National Union played hard to get, saying it would not recommend to Peres that Netanyahu form the government if he would include Kadima in his coalition.

"We are not in anyone's pocket," National Union leader Yaakov Katz said.
Never a dull moment here, is there? Read the whole thing for more.


At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hashem Yerachem. This is all we need to garner a few more "merit" points.

From bad to worse.

However, this was to be expected.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

I expect a free vote to finesse the issue. I also expect the civil marriage issue to go nowhere since none of the mainstream parties wants to offend the Orthodox and the haredi by contravening Jewish law. The status quo in this area is not going to change.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger LB said...

Norman - free vote would a good guess. Since they know that if they force Bibi to really court Kadima, they could ALL stay in the cold.

Two more things to think about, though - 1. Aryeh Deri is significantly more to the left than most other Shas members, so he might be pushing for Kadima behind the scenes. Whatever he's doing, you can bet that if it gives him more power - Yishai will be against it (they are the Rabin-Peres of the Sephardic Haredi world).

2. Civil marriage is not ENTIRELY anathema to the Dati-Leumi community, in certain cases. The Sephardic chief Rabbi - Shlomo Amar has come out in favor of civil marriage for people who cannot get married at all within the existing framework. Anything that weakens the (Haredi) rabbinate's power will be opposed by them.


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