Michael Boyden

Is This a Religious War?

Addressing the Degel Ha-Torah’s party conference on Saturday, its chairman, Knesset member Moshe Gafni, remarked that “we are at the height of a religious war.”

His comment was made following the unrest in Dizengoff Square resulting from the attempt by Rosh Yehudi to erect a mechitza (barrier) and hold gender segregated services there on Yom Kippur in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling.

However, Gafni is wrong. We are not in the middle of a war. However, the potential unfortunately exists.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu supported Yariv Levin’s initiative to reform Israel’s judicial system, he was unlikely to have realized that it would not only lead to massive, ongoing protests against the plan even from within his own party, but that the opposition to it would morph into something much larger.

The struggle has become one not only to preserve the democratic character of Israel, but also to ensure that the liberal principles enshrined in our country’s Declaration of Independence guide our nation.

Given that 50% of the government coalition is comprised of religious and charedi political parties, none of which is in the Opposition, it was almost inevitable that the protests against the proposed judicial reform would also end up being directed against the religious parties some of which would be more than delighted to render the Supreme Court impotent.

It is in that context that the government’s plans to introduce legislation to exempt yeshivah students from military service is going to be like throwing a lighted match into a powder keg.

Netanyahu understands that the Conscription Law is dynamite. While he is making every effort to soften its content, the religious parties insist upon it being legislated as a condition for their voting in favour of the government’s budget, which is also to be voted upon during the coming Knesset.

The IDF used to be referred to as a people’s army. However, that is no longer the case. When a significant proportion of potential conscripts are automatically legally exempt from service for religious reasons, in the unhealthy political climate that Netanyahu has created it could potentially lead to some asking themselves why they should put their lives on the line when others don’t.

Now that may not be a religious war, but it is just one more element in a struggle in which compromise is the only realistic way forward to ensure that we have a shared future here.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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