A New Jewish State

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Since the exit poll results were published at 10 P.M. on Tuesday, I have heard more than one liberal-minded Israeli frantically trying to find a silver lining to the storm cloud that is the elevation of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to the nation's kingmaker. Their source of optimism? The party's policies on state and religion.

Yisrael Beiteinu may want to disenfranchise 20 percent of Israel's citizens, they say, but is also the leading proponent of new legislation to allow a form of civil marriage in Israel, ending the scandalous situation whereby only Orthodox rabbis and or recognized clergymen of other religions are allowed to perform weddings, and hundreds of thousands of mixed couples or those whose religious status is unclear are incapable of getting married in Israel.

The party has also been vigorously pushing for a major reform in giyur (conversion) procedures that will take the keys to the gateway to the Jewish people away from the special rabbinical courts - controlled today by the ultra-conservative, ultra-Orthodox "Lithuanian" rabbinical establishment - and make it much easier for the 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union not officially recognized as Jews to formally join the tribe.

Some even find a spark of light in Lieberman's demand that all citizens be made to pledge allegiance to Israel. It might seem like a racist idea targeting Israeli Arabs, but it also puts pressure on the Haredim since the pledge includes a commitment to serving in the IDF or an equivalent civilian national service, anathema to the ultra-Orthodox community.

So is Lieberman an ultra-secularist, and his party an evolvement of the defunct anti-religious Shinui? You might think so, but then you wouldn't have read Yisrael Beiteinu's official election manifesto, which states that the party "believes that the state of Israel must be a Jewish state. Not the state of the Jews, a state of all its citizens. To be a Jewish state, it must remain loyal to the faith of its forefathers." Further down it states that "Yisrael Beiteinu strenuously opposes the separation of religion from state, not just because it would cause huge tension that could split the entire society. The uniqueness of the Jewish people is that there is no distance between state and religion. One is connected to the other by a strong bond that cannot be undone." Nothing secular about that.

It almost seems like a total contradiction: challenging the rabbis' stranglehold on broad areas of people's lives, together with unswerving loyalty not only to the Jewish identity of the state, but a religious Jewish identity.

So what is Lieberman: a rabid secularist or a closet frummer? And more seriously, does his growing popularity mean that there is an audience for this radical approach? One of the major political implications of this week's election is that the traditional king-making role of the Haredi parties, especially Shas, who used to hold the balance of power between the two largest parties, has now been taken over by a different constituency: "the Russians" represented by Lieberman. Shas were certainly aware of this, that's why spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef warned before the election that a vote for Yisrael Beiteinu would be "aiding the devil," and that the party wanted to liberalize the sale of pork and bring about assimilation.

But Rabbi Yosef was simply responding to a political threat using, as he has done in the past, crude stereotypes, this time of the "Russian" community. Indeed, there is nothing about pork in the Yisrael Beiteinu manifesto. But if he had spared the time to read the manifesto, he would have realized that the threat Lieberman poses to the ultra-Orthodox establishment is far more serious than just the loss of political bargaining power.

The famous "status quo" of state and religion in Israel mandates that Israel is essentially a secular state save for one area in which the Orthodox rabbinate has been given control - that of personal status. Therefore marriage, divorce and conversion are matters decided upon by dayanim (rabbinical judges), who may have their salaries paid by the state but their rulings are directed purely by the Torah sages, especially 98-year-old Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

For most of the Orthodox community, religion can mean only one thing - what the rabbis decide. Secular activists have tried for decades to overturn the status quo and achieve a total break between state and religion. Lieberman is the first politician to say that the state must be religious, but that doesn't mean the rabbis are the one who shall decide.

So what does it mean? The manifesto doesn't answer that question, but from the solutions it does offer to the thorny issues of civil marriage and conversion, it is clear that Lieberman expects the rabbis to play along and compromise their principles in accordance with what he sees as the needs of state and society. What Lieberman envisages is a state-rabbinate relationship very similar to the one existing between Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. One in which the clergy is given respect as the guardians of the nation's heritage, but expected to understand that they are there to serve the state, not the other way around.

If Lieberman will be a major player in the coalition that emerges from this week's chaotic election results, it can certainly be expected that he will push through legislation liberalizing marriage laws and a comprehensive reform of conversion procedures, and with that a significant erosion of the powers of the rabbinate, but his vision is far from that of liberal Judaism. Those who have been struggling for decades for similar reforms will have to be very careful before allying themselves on these issues with a man who has a vision of Judaism as a nationalist and chauvinistic tradition, there to serve the state and the strong man at its head.

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