By Daniel Chejfec
Israel's Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman made on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009 a statement in the Israeli Parliament to the effect that the Law (Torah) should be a binding legal principle in Israel. Neeman's statement created a stir. The uproar over his comments reflected the deep divide between the secular and religious communities in the Jewish state.
But beyond the social and political consequences of making such a statement, there is a deeper issue which is the implication of blurring the boundaries between religion and politics, which presents a number of problems and raises a number of questions.
Political Zionism was born of Modernity and the Enlightment, an historical movement best described by the separation of life into private and public spheres, a change that would eventually lead in America to establish the separation of Church and State as one of the principles of Modern Democracy. Neeman's statement flies on the face of it and tries to turn the clock back to pre-modern times implying that now that Jews control the mechanisms of a Jewish state, as they did not centuries ago, the separation of religion and politics may not longer be necessary...(!!!!!)
There is no doubt that one of the scourges of our times is Terrorism, and most of it is linked to Islamist Fundamentalist groups. The main objective of these groups is the establishment of Shari'a first in Muslim societies and later in the rest of the world. Their ideology was born of the rejection of the principles embodied by European Modernity and by extension by American Democracy. Neeman's statement is validating the Islamist position by proposing the imposition of Halacha on Israel's citizens, Jews and non Jews alike, religious and secular. It is removing the principle of freedom of religious practice from Israeli democracy.
By making the statement he is also reinforcing the monopoly of religious authorities over civil events such as marriages, burials, adoptions, etc. He is also implying that religious education should take precedence over secular education violating yet another of the pillars of modern democracy.
If on the other hand, he meant that Halacha should be binding within Jewish society in Israel, he would be formalizing yet another barrier in the integration of the Arab citizens of Israel, effectively promoting separate institutions for each community, and different set of laws – that sounds like the principle of "pillarization" applied in Europe for centuries which kept Jews inside the Ghettos and also allowed for the development of “Islamic islands” in XXI Century Europe or the “Equal but separate” principle that informed racist policies in the American South for many years...not a pretty concept either way!
The comment also exacerbates the conflict between Orthodox and non Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel and between religious and secular Israelis, and brings back to the front burner the old controversy over who is a Jew and who is entitled to benefit from the Law of Return. His comment implies that the Rabbinate (Orthodox) should have monopoly over it!
As a Jew and as a Zionist, I totally reject Neeman's comments and believe that the Israeli government owes its citizens and Diaspora Jewry an explanation as to how somebody holding such extremist views came to be the Justice Minister of Israel...