With all the talk about the anti-Arab rhetoric favored by our new kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman, too little attention has been paid to the challenge he poses for Israelis who have been hoping for a revolution in the moldy status quo of religion and state. But suddenly, it turns out that the principal obstacle to Yisrael Beiteinu's entry into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition is its bitter dispute with Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Yisrael Beiteinu's declaration that loyalty should be a condition for citizenship was not the party's only flagship issue. Another was a law permitting a form of civil marriage, which could be the first crack in the religious establishment's exclusive control over marriage and divorce in Israel. The party is also pushing for a comprehensive reform of conversion procedures that would take entry into the Jewish world away from the rabbinical courts. And while ultra-Orthodox politicians are not suspected of harboring any great love for Israeli Arabs, they too vehemently oppose Lieberman's proposed oath of loyalty, in part because it includes a commitment to either military or civilian national service.
Does Lieberman combine extreme nationalism with religious liberalism? A glance at his party's platform reveals that Yisrael Beiteinu "vehemently opposes a separation of religion and state, and not only because this is liable to cause enormous internal tensions that could completely split society. The uniqueness of the Jewish people is that there is no separation between religion and state." That is not exactly a secular revolution.
Is Lieberman trying to grasp both ends of the stick - to undermine rabbinic hegemony while simultaneously swearing fealty not only to the state's Jewish identity, but specifically to its religious identity? From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox, who view religion as blind obedience to the rabbis' orders, this is clearly a contradiction in terms. But secular Israelis, who connect changing the status quo to severing religion from state, will also find it hard to understand Lieberman.
The recent election transferred the fulcrum of coalition negotiation power from Shas to a party that drew most of its votes from immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, warned of this before the election, when, in his usual crude fashion, he declared that anyone who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu was aiding the devil, and that Lieberman would lead to assimilation and the sale of pork in the public square (there is no mention of pork in Yisrael Beiteinu's platform). But the threat that Lieberman's vision poses to the rabbinic establishment goes much deeper than the loss of its political bargaining power.
Israel is essentially a secular country, but it ceded its sovereignty on issues of personal status and conversion to the rabbinic establishment. In Lieberman's vision, the state would be the sole sovereign, and even the rabbis would be subordinate to it. Thus no separation between religion and state would be possible. Lieberman is the first politician to declare that the state should be religious, but the rabbis should not be the ones who determine what this means.
His proposals with regard to marriage and conversion clearly show that he expects the rabbis to become more flexible and adjust their principles to the needs of the state and Israeli society. In his mind's eye, he sees a relationship between the government and the rabbinate very similar to the one between Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The heads of the church are greatly honored as the preservers of the nation's heritage, but they are expected to serve the state rather than the state serving them. If Lieberman becomes a senior partner in the government, he will try to institute a form of civil marriage and make conversion procedures far more flexible. But make no mistake: Judaism according to Lieberman is a nationalist and chauvinist religion, a tool in the service of the state and the strongman who heads it.
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