Religion Sways Policy, Now in Israel

JERUSALEM – There was a time when Israel was held in contempt by its neighbors for its over-liberal ways. They felt it did not "belong" in the Middle East.

There’s been a twist in this negative perception of the possibility of the Jewish state fitting into the region. They were accustomed to an Israel that kept religion out of key political choices. Now they are concerned precisely because of the role religion plays in Israeli politics.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, recently told Maureen Dowd of The New York Times: "We are moving in the direction of a liberal society. What is happening in Israel is the opposite; they are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood." 

This trend, said the Prince, was coming "to a boiling point. The religious institutions in Israel are stymieing every effort at peace." 

Even though Dowd notes caustically that this comment from a prominent figure in a country known for its religious conservatism is overboard, the present Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undoubtedly the most "religiously determined" in the country’s history. 

But does that mean Israeli policy is dictated by religion? 

Most Israelis can legitimately be described as not being "deterministically religious". But they’re having to come to terms with the fact that the question of how much religion dictates the direction of their society has indeed become legitimate: less and less is there separation between state and religion. 

An unusual but telling domestic row has rocked the country, threatening political turmoil, though for the moment, a full-blown political crisis is on hold. 

A much quoted Biblical verse immediately came to mind: "Don’t announce the news in Gath, don’t proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice and the pagans will laugh in triumph (Samuel II, 1, 20, New Living Translation). 

The controversial decision which Netanyahu had hoped to keep from being "announced" came on the eve of his crisis visit to Washington earlier this week. 

It involves the approval by his cabinet, by a single vote, of the demand by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (of the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party) to move the planned bomb-proof emergency room of the Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon: the reason – the discovery of ancient burial grounds on the original site. 

In Jewish law, graves of Jews are held sacrosanct. They should never be disturbed, for whatever reason. In the past, this has provoked clashes with religious demonstrators objecting to new highways or buildings; many infrastructure projects have been delayed. Usually, in the end, political wheeler-dealing produced "constructive alternatives" to removing the graves. 

This time, the Orthodox parties are insistent, though building elsewhere will add an extra 35million dollars to costs, and delay completion by two years. 

The city of Ashkelon (population 108,000) is just 15 km north of the Gaza Strip, and has often come under rocket fire from Palestinian militants. 

In the wake of the decision, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, the Health Ministry director- general, resigned, saying that the decision "is likely to place lives at risk," a veiled reference to the injunction in Jewish religious law about the sanctity of life, that "saving a life should always take precedence." 

A senior Health Ministry official told IPS, "Residents of southern Israel will suffer from this strange decision." 

That’s when "Pagans" may play a (posthumous) role in the political crisis: it appears that it is not even sure that the ancient burial site is Jewish. 

Yossi Sarid, a former secular legislator, writes in Ha’aretz: "What the decision symbolizes is horrifying: in the eyes of the Israeli government, the dead take precedence over the living. Judging by its policy, this is a government given to necrophilia…the dead won’t die a second time. 

"The living will have to wait, as if there was nothing urgent going on as rockets explode nearby. But, this is how decisions on all issues pertaining to life and death are reached in Jerusalem. The dead have the right of way; the wholeness of the coalition takes precedence over everything." 

Secular Israelis are appalled. Under mounting pressure, while away in Washington dealing with the big diplomatic crisis with the U.S., Netanyahu was forced into a turnabout and has agreed to consider a re-vote. 

Pointedly, the vote of the Prime Minister himself was the decisive one. Without his vote in favor, the Orthodox-led demand would not have passed the cabinet. 

Yoel Hasson of the Kadima centrist opposition party told IPS "this is so typical of Netanyahu; he is anything but a leader. All he does is operate like a contractor to satisfy conflicting demands within his disparate coalition." Assuaging everybody is precisely the sort of charge the Prime Minister’s critics level against him for his handling of the full-blown row with the U.S. 

This latest graves crisis may not automatically suggest, as the Saudi Prince believes, that all Israel’s decisions on critical issues on peace and war are determined by religious edicts. 

For the past 30 years the religious parties have held an accepted stranglehold over both right and left governments which gave them an unbalanced influence over Israeli politics. 

What this crisis suggests is that it is not so much religion and politics that needs separation in Israel as religion and policy.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.