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Antireligious Fervor Marks Campaigning

May 09, 1999|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, a journalist for the Daily Ha'aretz, specializes in intelligence and terror affairs. He is author of "Every Spy a Prince: A Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."

TEL AVIV — Yosef Lapid was stunned by the directness and ruthlessness of the assault on him. "Because you were in a concentration camp," Eli Suissa shouted to him, "you wish to put all of us there!"

The remarks came during a political debate on television between the 67-year-old Holocaust survivor and Suissa, the Israeli minister of the interior. Lapid, a popular TV talk show host, is running as head of a small, centrist and fiercely antireligious party called Shinuy (Change). Shinuy's main--many will say only--cause is a no-holds-barred attack on the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, above all, Shas, Suissa's movement. Lapid regularly portrays the three religious parties that hold nearly 20% of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as enemies of secular, democratic and modern Israel. He is not alone.

Virtually all centrist and left-of-center parties have taken aim at the religious parties this campaign season. Slogans and sound bites branding the ultra-Orthodox as "parasites," "unproductive" and "power thirsty" are staples of campaign speeches and TV commercials. In any other country, such slurs against Jews would be labeled anti-Semitic without any hesitation. Suissa's remark, however, broke one of Israel's sacred taboos: Do not humiliate a Holocaust survivor for political gains.

The virulent antireligious theme of this campaign is unprecedented in Israeli political history. The elections, set May 17, will decide who will be Israel's next prime minister and fill the Knesset. Yet, the increasingly expressed antireligious sentiments reflect wider public opinion. For most of Israel's 50 years of independence, Israelis have accepted the central role that religion plays in state affairs and daily life. They have seen Orthodox Judaism as integral to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But the last three years of Benjamin Netanyahu's government has emboldened many Israelis to openly embrace an unmistakable truth about their society: It is secular.

Since his election in 1996, Netanyahu has relied on the country's three major religious parties--Shas, National Religious Party, United Torah Judaism--to govern. In return for their support, Netanyahu has sanctioned the channeling of nearly $8 billion to a variety of religious organizations and institutes, some of which proved to be fictitious. Shas leader Arie Deri was recently sentenced to four years in jail for corruption. The Netanyahu government also increased dramatically the number of ultrareligious yeshiva students exempt from military and national service, which is compulsory for every 18-year-old Israeli. The support of the religious parties has given Netanyahu and his Cabinet hawks, most notably Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, a virtual free hand to stall peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Besides its antireligious tenor, the current campaign is notable for the attention candidates pay to new Jewish immigrants from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late '80s, Israel has received more than 700,000 immigrants, who comprise about 15% of its electorate. Many of them have faced the normal problems associated with assimilation: finding suitable jobs and housing, and adjusting to a new cultural environment. But many have also been humiliated by the Israeli bureaucracy, in particular, by officials of the Ministry of Interior, which is controlled by Shas. The ministry handles questions of citizenship, naturalization and basic human and civic rights. Ministry officials have declared many of these immigrants "Gentiles," undesirable elements who do not deserve to enjoy rights granted to every Jew by the Law of Return.

In the last elections, the majority of Russian voters supported Netanyahu and Israel B'Aliya (Israel With Emigration), an ethnic and sectarian party led by Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, the Jewish former dissident and Zionist activist. Sharansky, a personal friend of Netanyahu's, joined the Cabinet but soon became an insignificant player after he was widely perceived as having sacrificed his political credo to the whims of the religious parties.

Sensing a drastic decline in his popularity among Russian voters and in his party's standing in the polls, Sharansky has reinvented himself as a champion of human and civil rights. His movement has come up with the most successful political ad in an otherwise boring TV campaign. Roughly translated from Russian, the ad says: "No to Shas control, Yes to our control," referring to the Interior Ministry. Sharansky's gimmick has worked. It infuriated Shas. In retaliation, Interior Minister Suissa declared that many "Russian female immigrants are escort girls." His remarks immediately redounded to the benefit of the leader of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak.

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