Diaspora, liberal Jews wary of Shas power

JERUSALEM — The ink had hardly dried on the coalition agreements binding Israel's new national unity government together when Shas began flexing its muscles on religious issues.

Upon entering his new office, Eli Yishai, the political leader of Shas — the fervently religious party now in control of several key ministries — made clear that he would move quickly to scrap any hint of civic reform instituted during the previous government.

"I will cancel any decision made that contravenes the status quo," said Yishai, Israel's new interior minister, referring to the set of informal agreements that have given the Orthodox establishment control over marriages, divorces and burials in the Jewish state.

"The results of the election prove that the people of Israel do not want a" civic revolution, he added.

Last year, after Shas bolted from his coalition, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced he would launch such a "revolution" to whittle down Orthodox control over many aspects of Israeli life. In fact, however, Barak was preoccupied with diplomatic issues and pursued his civic reform agenda halfheartedly.

Yishai said Shas will seek to cancel Israel's recognition of civil marriages in foreign consulates located on Israeli soil, one of the few changes made during the previous government's tenure.

Consular marriages are only relevant for a small number of people, but — by allowing Israelis with foreign passports to bypass the Chief Rabbinate and marry without traveling overseas — they represent a chink in the Orthodox monopoly on marriage in Israel.

It is still too early to say how much Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will allow fervently religious parties to pursue an agenda that could exacerbate tensions between Israel and diaspora Jewry at a time when many believe Palestinian violence requires concerted Israel-diaspora cooperation.

Nevertheless, Yishai's remarks — quoted first in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot and confirmed by an Interior Ministry spokesman — led some leaders of Judaism's liberal streams to wonder whether Israel's national unity government is indeed unifying for liberal world Jewry.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel's Masorti, or Conservative, movement, warned the new government that it risks an uproar among non-Orthodox diaspora Jews if it reverses recent moves toward pluralism.

"Unity must not only be between the political parties inside Israel, but also the entire Jewish people, the majority of whom are members of the Reform and Conservative movements," Bandel said.

In the United States, Reform and Conservative leaders said they are dismayed by Shas' role in the new government, where the party will control five ministries: Interior, Religious Affairs, Health, Jerusalem Affairs, and Labor and Welfare.

However, the leaders also recognize that security matters are now a higher priority in Israel than domestic matters, and they need to support the government.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement's ARZA World Union, said he expects Shas to use its new posts to create "mischief" for Reform and Conservative Jews.

However, "the national issues always outweigh the parochial issues," Hirsch said. "The security of Israel is more important than any given sectorial issue."

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he understands the political dynamic that requires Shas' inclusion in the government.

It may foster Sharon's "peace agenda," Epstein said, but it "will certainly hinder any domestic agenda."

Epstein said the Conservative movement will face a "real balancing act" to support Israel while continuing to push for pluralism.