The agreement between Shinui and NRP paving the way for the formation of the government took most political observers by surprise.
Over the past decades the polarization of attitudes between the religious and non-observant sectors of Israeli society and their demonization of one another reached such a level of hatred that it had begun to poison the quality of life throughout the nation.
Thus the accord between religious Zionists and avowed secularists could signal a historic turning point toward healing the people of Israel.
A heavy burden of responsibility to ensure the durability of the agreement rests with leaders in both camps, neither of whom is renowned for tolerance. The proposed changes relating to haredim will be concentrated on the vexed problem of draft exemptions and economic privileges gained through political clout rather than on the basis of merit.
They will also be considered in tandem with the critical need for haredim to join the workforce rather than subsisting on welfare or the earnings of their wives.
These are complex problems which will not be resolved overnight by simply passing a law requiring yeshiva students to enroll into the army forthwith.
Despite the agreement to maintain the status quo, there are other religion-state areas requiring attention that relate to NRP no less than to Shinui.
In simple terms, the real feasibility test of the NRP-Shinui accords will be the extent to which Shinui introduces legislation to enable non-observant Israelis to feel they are not being unduly coerced by religious Jews, and the NRP is simultaneously enabled to strengthen the Jewish identity of the nation.
Shabbat observance is a case in point. The agreement to promote a weekend with Sunday designated as an additional “secular” day of rest would ease many of the problems currently associated with Shabbat observance. But the current economic crisis may make it impractical to implement this in the immediate future.
In the meantime the NRP would be well advised to explore ways and means in which leisure facilities could be expanded for those not observing Shabbat, while stricter implementation of the bans prohibiting Shabbat trade and commerce are enforced.
Mushrooming commercialization and rampant materialism represent the greatest threats to the retention of a Shabbat atmosphere. Unless prevailing trends are reversed, Shabbat-observant Israelis will begin experiencing real financial penalties.
An agreement was also reached to enable those who are halachically disqualified from having a religious marriage to enter into state-approved matrimonial relationships without being obliged to undergo the charade of traveling abroad. This will be resolved without introducing an unrestricted regime of civil marriage which would create painful problems for future generations of Israelis unable to marry one another.
THE REVIEW of these and other issues such as conversion and the Law of Return could make a significantly positive contribution to the unity of the nation without either Shinui or the NRP compromising their principles. But that would require them to exercise restraint.
Shinui’s electoral success was at least partly achieved by their exploitation of the prevailing climate of prejudice against haredim. If Shinui is to become a long-term constructive force in the political arena and not disappear like former Israeli center parties, it must now scrupulously avoid inflammatory rhetoric including haredi-bashing and mocking of religious observance.
The most disgraceful example of this was a statement made a few months ago by new Interior Minister Avraham Poraz commending Holland for boycotting shehita because this practice of ritual slaughter is “cruel.”
Setting aside the abysmal ignorance such a remark reveals, it will also ensure Poraz the dubious distinction of being quoted in all future anti-Semitic tracts seeking to get shehita outlawed. I hope such outbursts will never recur in his new role.
Much will depend on the approach Shinui founder and leader Yosef (Tommy) Lapid adopts. Contrary to the image prevailing amongst his antagonists, Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, has always been a passionate national Jew and a Zionist. He has consistently maintained that he respects religious Zionists, and the deal with the NRP is a positive indicator of this.
The NRP leaders, for their part, have been granted an incredible last chance to restore their traditional role of bridging the divide between religious and secular Jews. They made a major contribution in the early years toward promoting Jewish values and strengthening the Jewish foundations of the state.
Regrettably, they became engulfed in a wave of messianic fervor after the Six Day War; this transformed them into a one-dimensional party concentrating almost exclusively on the Land of Israel and effectively marginalized them from the political mainstream.
Now they have an opportunity to reverse the negative perception of many Israelis who associate all religious Jews with draft evasion and parasitism. They can achieve this by demonstrating that their youngsters, who consider military service a religious obligation, are in fact over-represented in the most highly motivated combat units.
The NRP can, in effect, provide the cement to bond the secular, religious and haredi sectors, reversing the tides of polarization which have impacted the nation so negatively. Together with Shinui they can help to create a better, more harmonious and tolerant society while strengthening the Jewish democratic values of the nation.
Like Lapid, his Shinui counterpart, Effi Eitam must also restrain his inclination to indulge in colorful outbursts. More importantly, the NRP must realize that while it is entitled to promote its vision for the future, including opposition to a Palestinian state, its overriding objective must be to promote Jewish values and strengthen the state’s Jewish soul.
Nobody ever dreamt that Ariel Sharon would emerge as a great Jewish leader uniting the people and achieving a consensus. Eitam and Lapid have it within their grasp to follow his example.
If they succeed, their internal revolution will be no less significant than what our prime minister will hopefully achieve on the international level.