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The Issue That May Spoil the Chance for Mideast Peace : Israel: At issue is not just land for security. The future identity of the Jewish state--Judaism vs. secularism--may be at stake.

January 09, 1994|Stephen Games | Stephen Games is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and a former British Press Award winner.

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators limp from Oslo to Versailles to Cairo, some comfort can be taken in the fact that at least both parties agree that the only way to achieve their goals is by talking. But as the bargaining continues, another more problematic dialogue is not taking place--that between Israelis and Israelis.

While supporters of the peace accord talk of an integration of both societies within a no-longer dysfunctional Middle East, objectors feel stifled. They fear that what is at stake is not just the trading of land for security but something deeper that isn't being articulated: the future identity of the Jewish state.

The anxiety is that a government that sees justice in the Palestinian cause will also see justice in other civil-rights issues and will move to curb, even eradicate, Judaism as Israel's official religion. The Meretz Party, which makes up the left wing of the ruling Labor coalition, has been increasingly vocal about the need for reform, arguing in favor of some form of establishment clause such as that enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Without being in any way a theocracy, Israeli life is dominated by rabbinic authorities who have a say in many of the country's rituals and regulations: marriage, divorce, burial, food, army recruitment, the civil observance of the Sabbath and so on. Although the rabbinate was central to the minds of the mainly secular founders of the state in 1948, it has come under growing criticism for its inflexibility and, many would say, hypocrisy.

Meretz and other progressive critics resent what they see as an Orthodox monopoly. They hold that Jews in Israel enjoy fewer human rights than non-Jews, who are not bound by rabbinic restrictions. Traditional Jewish law may have protected the Jewish people during its 2,000 years of dispersion, but this job, they say, is now performed by Israel. They see contemporary Judaism not as a religion but as an open-ended cultural process, absorbing a range of influences that take it ever farther from the fossilizing tendencies of Orthodoxy.

The religious right finds all this shocking. It regards the provision by Meretz of a Jerusalem bus service to fill the absence of a Sabbath transit system for Friday-night disco-goers, or the decision by Knesset member Yael Dayan, daughter of the military hero Moshe Dayan, to spend Yom Kippur in a bikini at the beach, as deliberate provocations. It finds perverse the left's enthusiasm to install Palestinians in West Bank settlements and to suggest that displaced Jews move to notoriously hostile Arab cities such as Shechem or Ramallah.

But many more than just the Orthodox are alarmed that the peace talks are being used as a test bed for social change. While most Jews in Israel do not want to see Israel turned into a religious enclave, they share the concern that any move to separate church and state would not only deny 3,000 years of Jewish aspiration but also Israel's modern-day purpose--the provision of a Jewish homeland--making its continued survival relatively pointless and far harder to defend, intellectually as well as militarily.

Quite apart from questions of national security, it is the idea that Israeli-Palestinian coexistence can only work under conditions of state secularism that pushes the country's panic buttons. In order not to deprive non-Jews of their rights, those laws that privilege Jews, including, ultimately, the Law of Return, which gives all Jews the right to Israeli citizenship, would need to be repealed. If this is the logical consequence of what is being decided at the peace table, even the most secular, long-time Zionist is going to have trouble with it.

What has confused the issue are the attempts by Israel to portray these fears as the special province of the Orthodox. But the polarization of the situation into a standoff between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox misrepresents the large body of Israelis--and diaspora Jews--who have strong beliefs but identify with neither group.

It fails to recognize the ebbing of support for a trade-off between territory and peace, and invites the objection that if an unfamiliar peace means the end to Zionism, they'll stick with the conflict they know.

This is what gave rise to the unexpected remarks by former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren when he called on Israeli soldiers to disobey if ordered to evacuate the settlements. Goren was finally choosing to put his own interpretation of religious law above the provisions of state law, after having been a respected and longstanding mediator between church and state. Not surprisingly, the government reacted angrily.

But Goren's outburst was symbolic of a volcano now rumbling in Israel. Beneath the surface of those who welcome the inevitable outcome of peace--a constitution with the equivalent of a First Amendment--a force is building that seeks to preserve Israel's special status as a Jewish homeland partly bound by laws that few willingly abide by.

That force is looking for an outlet before it explodes.

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