Religious-secular strife awaits Barak as he returns home

JERUSALEM — While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has spent recent days busily engaged in high-profile diplomacy in the United States, religious-secular disputes brewing back home may force him to use his diplomatic skills on his own coalition partners.

Barak said in New York last weekend that synagogue-and-state issues in Israel would be kept off center stage while he focuses on the resumed peace process.

Calling for unity among the Jewish people, Barak added that he wanted to be seen as the premier of all Jews, regardless of past political disputes or diverse religious or ideological affiliations.

Controversial religious questions in Israel would be frozen, he said, committing himself for the time being to maintaining the religious status quo, which gives the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate control over religious affairs in the Jewish state.

As he spoke, however, his coalition partners and the heterogeneous sectors of the community that they represent were making it clear that they have their own plans — and that synagogue-and-state issues, far from being shunted to the side, will be front and center.

This week, Israel's new government agreed to provide "requisite services" for non-Orthodox Jews who want to pray at a specially designated area close to, but separate from, the main prayer plaza of the Western Wall. The commitment, made in a letter from the Religious Affairs Ministry, marks the first time an Israeli government has officially recognized the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at the Kotel.

Meanwhile, ongoing controversies surrounding Shabbat observance have catalyzed the resumption of long-standing hostilities on two battlefields.

At Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, Druze inspectors dispatched by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs handed out tickets and fines last Saturday to shop owners and salespeople at one of the numerous mini-malls around the country operating on kibbutz land and doing their best business on the Sabbath.

In Jerusalem on the same day, members of the fervently religious, or haredi, community held the latest in a series of demonstrations against allowing Shabbat traffic through their Jerusalem neighborhood. Nine protesters were arrested for assaulting police and throwing rocks.

The protests were held even though an arrangement, endorsed by Israel's Supreme Court, has already been reached. Under that arrangement Bar-Ilan Street, a major artery in the north of the capital, is shut to traffic during Sabbath services and opened at other times.

Along with the Sabbath-related disputes, another source of long-simmering tensions surfaced when an Orthodox member of Barak's coalition wrote legislation that would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate complete control over conversions.

Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism bloc, has crafted a bill stating that "legal standing will not be given to a conversion performed inside or outside of Israel unless approved by the Chief Rabbinate."

The issue of conversions, which until now focused only on those performed in Israel, has been a major source of contention among Reform and Conservative Jews.

The bill may never come to a Knesset vote. Nonetheless, it underscores the fact that Barak may be unable to keep religious questions off his agenda in the months ahead.

While the Gan Shmuel raid touched on Sabbath-related issues, it was not without its comic aspects.

The kibbutz is home to the minister of trade and industry, Ran Cohen, a member of the secular Meretz Party.

He responded to the raid by threatening to send inspectors from his ministry — people of both sexes and "in eye-catching attire" — to haredi shops and places of business on weekdays, doling out fines and tickets for all manner of infractions.

The inspectors come under the domain of Labor Minister Eliyahu Yishai of the fervently religious Shas Party.

Yishai has received vigorous support from urban shops, which are kept closed under the law on the Sabbath and are finding their business threatened by the out-of-town malls.

The Shabbat-shopping controversy affects the interests and lifestyle of large numbers of secular Israelis who demand the option of shopping at their leisure.

In addition, the kibbutz malls are turning over millions of dollars of goods and growing into a powerful lobby.

The haredi parties can elect to turn a blind eye to what is, after all, no change in the religious status quo, but rather the development of a new situation.

By the same token, they can choose to make an issue of the malls, which would result in disharmony within Barak's leftist-religious coalition.

Yishai's inspectors could find themselves manhandled, or, perhaps worse, simply ignored.

The rule of law is also in danger on another front: with the Jerusalem haredim, who never fully accepted the court-endorsed compromise over Bar-Ilan Street.

Tisha B'Av, when the yeshivas break up for the summer vacation, traditionally marks the start of the demonstration season in the capital. Jerusalem could face a long, hot summer.

The situation is already heating up. On Monday Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef promised Israel's public security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, that he would urge supporters to refrain from confrontations with police. The meeting followed the arrest of five haredim who were arrested after confrontations with police over Sabbath traffic on Bar-Ilan Street.

The following day, residents of the fervently religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim allegedly harassed some female employees of the Education Ministry for what they called their "immodest dress." When police intervened in the incident, the residents threw stones at them. In response, Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid asked police to step up their presence around the ministry's offices, which are adjacent to the neighborhood.