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Rabbis raising questions about governance of Israel; Ultra-Orthodox say court rulings undercut authority


JERUSALEM -- Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are calling Israel's Supreme Court a bunch of "wanton evildoers" who desecrate the Sabbath. The court's secular defenders are portraying the rabbis as a dangerous cabal that wants to turn Israel into an Iranian-style theocracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is upset. So is President Ezer Weizman. So are the police, for the whole fight is likely to come to a head tomorrow when ultra-Orthodox rabbis plan to hold a mass demonstration to protest recent Supreme Court decisions that they say contravene their authority.

At issue is a question that has troubled the modern Jewish state since its founding more than 50 years ago:

Is this a secular democracy, or a land that should be ruled by laws handed down by God?

The confrontation comes at a politically sensitive time here. Campaigns for prime minister have begun in a country where the ruling governments have increasingly had to depend on the support of the religious parties to govern.

"Don't think that this demonstration is the end of the road for us," said Rabbi Menachem Porush, an organizer of the rally and a member of the ultra-religious political party, Agudat Yisrael. "It is the beginning."

Netanyahu and Weizman tried to get the demonstration postponed. The national police are investigating whether the harsh comments directed at the Supreme Court constitute illegal incitement.

Since its birth 50 years ago, Israel has grappled with the question of how the only democracy in the region can remain a Jewish state. In 1948, the secular Zionists who founded the state agreed to leave religious matters in the hands of the country's chief rabbis.

But, through the years, as Israel's democratic institutions developed and civil rights became an increasingly potent issue, the desires of secular and religious Jews clashed.

This week, members of the country's ultra-Orthodox establishment rebelled against Israel's 15-member Supreme Court, its activist chief judge, Aharon Barak, and recent court rulings that they say undermine their authority in matters between God and man.

One crucial case in point: a court ruling that upheld the appointment of Conservative and Reform Jews to local religious councils.

Previously, the councils were dominated by the Orthodox. When the court fined the head of the Jerusalem council for not convening the group with non-Orthodox Jews, the rabbis saw it as the ultimate affront.

Another ruling allowed some shops to open on the Sabbath.

'What do they know?'

A respected former chief Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, called the Supreme Court judges "rebels" who "desecrate" the Sabbath.

"They call themselves the Supreme Court; they don't even deserve to be a lower court," Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, said in his weekly address to yeshiva students.

"All of Israel's suffering is because of them, these empty-headed and wanton evildoers. What do they know? Any 7- or 8-year-old child of ours knows more Torah than they do," said Yosef.

"Gather and stand together," another rabbi, Yisrael Eichler, said, quoting from the Book of Esther and invoking the story of Purim, in which the evil Persian Haman conspires to massacre the Jews.

Rabbi Porush, an organizer of the protest planned for tomorrow, said the ultra-Orthodox accept the court's jurisdiction in criminal and many civil matters.

"We put up with this," said Porush, who wishes the state had accepted the Bible as its constitution. "However, the courts have begun to intervene in matters that are between a person and God.

"Would the courts tell an Islamic sheik not to accept the decision of the mufti? Would they have told a Christian priest not to accept the decision of the bishop? But here they told members of the religious council not to accept the decision of the chief rabbinate."

The ultra-Orthodox account for about 10 percent of Israel's 5 million people.

A Gallup Poll released yesterday shows that most Israelis don't view the Supreme Court as harshly as the ultra-Orthodox do. The poll found 73 percent of Israelis disagreed with the contention that the Supreme Court was anti-religious.

Concerns about theocracy

The rabbis' decision to call for a mass prayer rally has inflamed passions on the other side of the religious spectrum.

Left-wing groups and secular organizations, such as the kibbutz movement, have called for a counter demonstration.

"Israel will not be another Iran," a newspaper ad by the left-wing Meretz Party said yesterday. "The ultra-Orthodox intend to topple the whole legal system and replace it with religious law."

Jonathan Rosenblum, an Orthodox columnist and spokesman for Am Echad, an Orthodox organization, said the left's concerns about a theocracy are unfounded: "There is absolutely no one who dreams that there is going to be a [religious] system of law imposed in the state or seeks to do so."

Rosenblum said the protest is targeting the judicial philosophy of the court that appropriates the policy-making role of government.

"It is against a legal philosophy that allows the court to impose its own admitted elitist biases in a whole series of value judgments that are the purview of the Knesset," he said, referring to Israel's parliament. "A protest against this judicial philosophy is appropriate."

He also criticized the appointment process. A nine-member panel, on which three Supreme Court judges sit, selects judges in the state. Not one member of the Supreme Court is a Jew from an Arab country, he said, though the so-called Sephardim make up a majority of the Jews in the country.

While most of the founding fathers were non-observant Jews, said Rosenblum, "they also, however, viewed maintaining a certain standard of Jewish identity as crucial to the moral and cultural power of the state."

David Libaii, a former justice minister who chaired the appointment panel under a Labor government, said the present system has worked well over the years.

"The system is very independent. I don't think we have to change anything," he said. "What they want is to circumvent the Supreme Court."

The problem, according to Libaii, is that both the government and Israel's parliament have yielded to the system of religious authority as set down by Israel's founders.

The only institution that hasn't is the Supreme Court, because it is not a political institution.

The court's duty is to implement the law and safeguard the personal liberties of Israeli citizens, he said.

Although Israel does not have a constitution, the enactment of two laws in 1992 regarding civil liberties gave the Supreme Court the authority to determine whether a law or act of government is constitutional.

While the rabbis might be defending the Jewishness of this secular state, Libaii said, there is another motive at work.

"They are endeavoring to recruit all the religious circles," he said, "and unite them on state and religious issues, so that they will vote for religious parties [in the May 17 election] and not, for instance, for the Likud or other parties."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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