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by Peter Hirschberg

Hundreds of Thousands of Israelis Denied Marriage Under Jewish Purity Law

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's latest headache has nothing to do with the Palestinians, or with Syria, or Iran, or even Hezbollah. It has to do with leavened bread.

The religious establishment in Israel, including their political representatives in Olmert's governing coalition, are seething over a court ruling last week that permits the sale of bread by restaurants and groceries during the Passover holiday, which falls later this month. Jewish religious law prohibits the consumption of leavened bread during Passover and stipulates that Jews must eat only unleavened bread known as matzah.

"The ruling puts a gun to the head of the Jewish people," said Yitzhak Cohen, the Religious Affairs Minister and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Zevulun Orlev, head of the National Religious Party, said the decision by the court had "seriously harmed" the Jewish people.

Eli Yishai, the leader of Shas, which is a key member of Olmert's government, demanded that the attorney general appeal the decision, which he called a "black stain on Israel's Jewish identity."

Other religious lawmakers have begun drafting legislation to circumvent the court's decision and plug any loopholes in the 1986 Festival of Matzot Law, which forbids the display of bread in public, but not the sale of bread.

The latest religious-secular spat in Israel began last Thursday when a judge in a local Jerusalem court ruled that restaurants, groceries and pizzerias in the city could sell bread during Passover. Judge Tamar Bar-Asher Tzaban dismissed charges filed against four restaurant owners by the Jerusalem municipality last year for selling bread during Passover. Restaurants and groceries, she determined, did not constitute public places.

Until last year, municipal governments -- even in Jerusalem where many of the residents are religious -- had not sent out inspectors to enforce the Passover law. But the decision by Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, who is a religious Jew, to fine restaurant owners, led to last week's decision and to the latest round of tension between secular and religious Jews in Israel.

While the religious-secular divide is one of the main fissures in Israeli society, tensions usually simmer below the surface. At times, though, they erupt into acrimonious public confrontations.

In the past, the opening of cinemas in some areas on the Sabbath and the demand by religious Jews that certain roads be closed on the Sabbath -- Jewish religious law forbids the use of electricity on the Sabbath -- has led to protests by both secular and religious Jews. In some cases, it has resulted in violent confrontations between religious protesters and the police.

An informal set of understandings known as the "status quo" has emerged over the years in Israel and it defines religious-secular relations in the absence of a constitution. It is dictated also by location: in Jerusalem, for instance, which has a bigger religious population, it is difficult to find bread products during Passover; in Tel Aviv, which is inhabited predominantly by secular Jews, bread can be easily obtained during the week-long holiday.

The absence of a clear division between religion and state in Israel inevitably leads to friction between religious and secular Jews. While Israel has a modern, largely secular legal system, there are areas where religious law is applied. The religious establishment, for instance, has a monopoly on issues of personal status like marriage, divorce and conversion. Jews cannot be married in a civil wedding ceremony in Israel, but only by an Orthodox rabbi. Divorces take place in religious courts.

This religious monopoly angers many secular Jews, who feel that they should be able to live their lives as they choose. If, for instance, they wish to marry in a civil ceremony then this option should be open to them, they contend.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former education minister and former member of the stridently secular Meretz party, said the Passover law was not meant to stop secular Israelis from eating bread on Passover, but rather was meant only to limit the public display of bread so as not to offend the sensibilities of the religious. "The law, as approved by the Knesset (Israeli parliament), didn't intend to interfere with the religious freedom of Israelis, but to prevent advertising of the sale of chametz (bread products) to protect the feelings of the religious population in Israel," he said.

Ran Cohen, one of the current leaders of Meretz, was more blunt. Barring people from selling bread on Passover, he said, was a clear case of "religious coercion."

"People said to us 'You won for us,'" said Eyal Lahav, who owns a pizzeria in Jerusalem and was one of the four defendants in the case. "They said to us that it shows that there is a place for secular Jews in this city as well."

Earlier this week, ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Avraham Ravitz submitted an amendment to the law that would completely bar the sale of bread on Passover. He is also demanding that parliament hold a special session so that the change can be made before Passover begins on Apr. 19. Ravitz said he had spoken to several leading rabbis and they had told him they viewed the court ruling as "another attempt by the judicial system to take control of religious life in Israel."

Fearful that the Passover spat could escalate further, Olmert has been appealing for calm. "We should not turn the court ruling into a culture war," he said. "Everyone here has to live together."

Olmert is sensitive to the fact that religious issues have threatened the stability of governments in the past. During his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin saw his government fall in 1976 after the religious parties pulled out of the ruling coalition in protest over the delivery of four F-15 fighter jets shortly after the start of the Sabbath.

With talks on the Palestinian track faltering and tensions with Syria rising, the last thing the Israeli leader needs now is a secular-religious battle threatening his government.

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Albion Monitor   April 8, 2008   (

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