After Three Years of Quiet, Public Appears to Be Disinterested in Matters of State and Religion

Two weeks ago, a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters broke into the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine and vandalized equipment and hundreds of ultra-Orthodox blocked roads and threw stones in Jerusalem.

"What was the public response to the riots?" asked the director of the Yahad Council for dialog in Israeli society, Udi Cohen. "A joke on [the satirical TV show] 'Wonderful Country.'"

When the Yahad Council was established a decade ago, most of its work involved bridging the Orthodox-secular divide. Today it is working mainly with Jews and Arabs; it is hard to find funding for its earlier activities.

Just three years ago Shinui won 15 Knesset seats following an election campaign targeting the Orthodox establishment. Two weeks ago, only 3 percent of the respondents in a survey by Dr. Mina Tzemach said their most important concern was religion and state.

The Yahad Council and Shinui seem to have the same problem: the Orthodox-secular divide has a poor showing in the ratings.

Not that Shinui's success in the last elections was a fluke. Four years before, the pledge to draft yeshiva students was a main reason for the triumph of Ehud Barak in the race for the prime ministership. In 1992, Raphael Eitan's Tzomet won eight seats with a similar campaign.

But in the upcoming elections, if former Shinui MK Avraham Poraz's Hetz party does not pass the electoral threshold, only one outright secular party will remain in the Knesset: Meretz, and it is only expected to garner five seats.

The Abu Kabir riot, over an autopsy, was not the only religious matter to be received with underwhelming interest by the public: the Strauss food company pledged to sponsor only events that are vetted by the strict kashrut supervision of Badatz; former health minister Nissim Dahan told high school students that women could not be MKs; Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, a respected Bnei Brak cleric, asked the police commissioner to release the Jewish terrorist Ami Popper who murdered seven Arabs.

"In my circles, people are saying 'Enough already with the ultra-Orthodox,'" the number 2 Hetz candidate, former Shinui MK Ronnie Brizon says, "'they don't exist.'" The remnants of Shinui are victims of their own success. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, of the Israel Religious Action Center, says, "Israel's citizens have gotten three years of respite from Orthodox politics. Israelis have short memories."

Paradoxically, Hetz's mission is to explain to the public that Shinui was not so successful and the ultra-Orthodox are still a danger. "We'll persuade the public that the Religious Affairs Ministry could be reestablished and child allowances could be doubled and tripled," Brizon says.

But since these matters do not seem to bother the public, Hetz will probably focus on what really frightens secular people: the closure of shopping malls on Shabbat.

Shinui's three main accomplishments were a cabinet without the ultra-Orthodox, the slashing of child allowances and the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry. But the secular public has chalked up many more achievements.

"The status quo has been eaten away in recent years in favor of secular people," says Prof. Avraham Diskin, of the political science department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Just look at the shopping malls on Shabbat. The ultra-Orthodox will never stop that. So secular people don't feel threatened," he says.

The argument that matters of religion and state are no longer relevant is often accompanied by the claim that the ultra-Orthodox have learned the lesson of three lean years in the opposition, and moderated their stands.

The legal adviser to Shas, David Glas, says the Orthodox public understands there really is no need for the Religious Affairs Ministry. "I have not forgotten and neither have others, the demonstrators who shouted 'Anything but Shas.' Much of the Orthodox public has accepted the fact that the time may have passed for religious legislation."

Kariv, a Reform rabbi, sees things somewhat differently. "Ultra-Orthodox politics grew up. The budget is more important than legislation." But Brizon believes that "they have not learned their lesson. These are people who for 1,500 years have taken it on the chin."

Shinui's branding

It is also said by both the left and the Orthodox that Shinui's Orthodox-bashing was tainted by racism. Rabbi Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) says, "The secular public is fed up with the kind of struggle Shinui waged." Former MK Avraham Burg says of Shinui, "The haters became the hated."

"I certainly do not hate the ultra-Orthodox," MK Yosef Lapid says. "We were stuck with that label and it's foolishness. Lapid explains the loss of interest in the issue as "too much success. It's possible that offensiveness was also responsible, but without it we wouldn't have gotten 15 seats."

Glas believes that "the public is tired. People don't care." Burg agrees. "Nobody's interested in anything. As far as an internal agenda goes, Israel is lost."