Is­rael a theoc­racy? It would die

Its great­est chal­lenge is to re­main both the Jewish state and a lib­eral democ­racy


WHAT IS the great­est chal­lenge faced by the state of Is­rael to­day? I for­give any­one who thinks that the an­swer must — surely — be Is­rael’s re­la­tions with its Arab neigh­bours, or even Is­rael’s in­ter­face with the Mus­lim world. For my money, the great­est chal­lenge Is­rael faces comes from within. And noth­ing could bet­ter il­lus­trate what I mean than the cur­rent furore sur­round­ing the le­gal right of shops and restau­rants to sell chametz prod­ucts dur­ing Pe­sach. What I mean, in other words, is the in­eluctable ten­sion that ex­ists in the Jewish state be­tween the lib­erty of the in­di­vid­ual and the preser­va­tion of na­tional iden­tity.

In 1986, the Knes­set was per­suaded to en­act a law crim­i­nal­is­ing the dis­play-for-sale of chametz — let’s say bread, and bread prod­ucts. But, as any­one who has spent Pe­sach in Is­rael knows, there are plenty of bak­eries and restau­rants that make and sell such prod­ucts over this fes­ti­val. Since none of th­ese es­tab­lish­ments is un­der rab­bini­cal su­per­vi­sion, it fol­lows that they must draw their cus­tom ex­clu­sively from non-ob­ser­vant Jews and from Chris­tians and Mus­lims.

So why was the 1986 law en­acted, and why is there such a fuss now? The short an­swer is that in 1986, the Knes­set ac­knowl­edged the strength of feel­ing be­hind the view, es­poused vo­cif­er­ously by its prac­tis­ing Ortho­dox cit­i­zens, that the pub­lic dis­play of chametz was an af­front to the Jewish val­ues of the Jewish state. At the same time it ac­knowl­edged that Is­rael, as a democ­racy, must re­spect the lib­erty of the in­di­vid­ual and re­frain from re­li­gious in­tim­i­da­tion. So there fol­lowed a de­lib­er­ate fudge. Whilst the pub­lic dis­play of chametz was for­bid­den, and whilst lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were em­pow­ered to en­force this pro­hi­bi­tion, bak­eries were to re­main free to bake bread, and shops and restau­rants to sell it, dis­cretely, dur­ing Pe­sach.

But for the sec­tar­ian Ortho­dox, this was not enough. They were de­ter­mined to un­ravel this sen­si­ble com­pro­mise, and if that meant brush­ing aside the val­ues of a lib­eral democ­racy, and com­pelling the ir­re­li­gious to be­come, to how­ever so small a de­gree, less ir­re­li­gious, so much the bet­ter. In 2003 they found an ally in the newly elected mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupo­lianksi, who has at­tempted to press crim­i­nal charges against sell­ers of chametz. Two weeks ago, a Jerusalem court threw out th­ese in­dict­ments, the judge rul­ing that the 1986 law ap­plied only to the pub­lic dis­play-for-sale of chometz prod­ucts. And last week Is­rael’s at­tor­ney-gen­eral, Me­nachem Mazuz, made it clear that he has no in­ten­tion of in­ter­fer­ing with this rul­ing. He is right not to do so. On my first visit to Is­rael, and to Haifa, in 1972, I was curious to know about the “white meat” sold in cer­tain shops in that city. A friend whis­pered to me that “white meat” was a eu­phemism for pork. I must con­fess that it came as a shock to me that pigs could be reared in Is­rael, and slaugh­tered for con­sump­tion by — well, by any­one who cared to buy and eat pig-meat. In 1956 and 1962, the Knes­set acted to re­strict the hus­bandry of pigs, but keep­ing pigs and man­u­fac­tur­ing and sell­ing pork prod­ucts has never been the sub­ject of a to­tal ban, as is the case in some Is­lamic theoc­ra­cies. There are the rights of Is­rael’s Chris­tian mi­nor­ity to con­sider. There are the tourists to ac­com­mo­date. And — es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the im­mi­gra­tion of Soviet Jews with a long tra­di­tion of pork con­sump­tion — there are the rights of the non-re­li­gious.

The sec­tar­ian Ortho­dox — the Abom­inable No-Men — are typ­i­cally work­ing them­selves into a typ­i­cal state of tem­per about this, and the re­cent le­gal rul­ings on the sub­ject of chametz dur­ing Pe­sach are driv­ing them to a new frenzy.

I’m afraid they will get no sym­pa­thy from me. Con­sump­tion of pork is in­deed con­trary to or­tho­doxy. So is eat­ing of bread dur­ing Pe­sach. But wait a minute. So is eat­ing any­thing dur­ing Yom Kip­pur. The Knes­set has never con­sid­ered crim­i­nal­is­ing eat­ing dur­ing Yom Kip­pur dur­ing this fast, the ob­ser­vance of which is equally (I would have thought) em­blem­atic of Jewish val­ues. What has struck me about Yom Kip­pur in Is­rael is that even non-kosher restau­rants are closed, and that even the non-Ortho­dox re­frain from driv­ing their cars.

In short, re­li­gious co­er­cion has no place in Is­rael. It’s much bet­ter to set an ex­am­ple, and wait for oth­ers to re­spect that ex­am­ple, and even, per­haps, in time, to fol­low it.

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