New president pledges to unite Israel, but exacerbates religious-secular tension

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JERUSALEM, Israel, 12 August 2000 (Newsroom) -- Amid concerns by secular Jews that the wall between church and state is softening, Israel’s first Sephardi president insists that his priority is unifying a country that is agonizing over its character and future.

Moshe Katsav, who defeated Shimon Peres on August 1 to become the first president nominated by the conservative-nationalist Likud party, ruffled feathers almost immediately by announcing plans to build a synagogue in the president’s residence, and visiting one controversial rabbi and defending another who called Holocaust victims sinners.

The Israeli presidency previously was viewed by many as one of the last bastions of the secular Ashkenazi (European Jews) Labor party -- the liberal elite -- that has controlled most of Israel's positions of power for nearly all of its 52 years.

For many Israelis Katsav’s election helped break another wall that separates Sephardi Jews -- immigrants from Muslim countries -- from others. The 55-year old Katsav immigrated to Israel from Iran in 1951. He first was elected to the Knesset in 1977, when the Likud party and Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to power, and previously served as minister of Labor, Transportation and Tourism.

Katsav’s supporters hope that his presidency will become more reflective of the new realities in the multicultural, pluralistic Israeli society. Despite the rise of ultra-Orthodox parties in recent years, politicians maintain that ethnic-based politics has become an anachronism in a society where 40 percent of marriages are now between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

In his first official interview, Katsav pledged "to be the president of all Israelis, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, veterans and new immigrants (and to) be involved in Israeli society seeking only to minimize the gaps and lower the tensions." He also called on Knesset members to tone down their rhetoric and "treat each other with more respect," saying that Israeli society has not learned the right lessons from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Still, according to the polls, most Israelis wanted Shimon Peres to continue as president and see Katsav's victory as a coup of hawks and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member of the Knesset who teaches philosophy at Haifa University, believes that the primary reason for Katsav’s victory is that a majority of Knesset members preferred a candidate who could unite Israeli society over the international stature Peres would have brought to the post.

"They chose a candidate who sees importance in preserving Jewish tradition, culture, and soul over Peres’ version of a new Middle East without borders between states and peoples," Steinitz contends. "In the battle over the state’s character, it’s a victory of the Jewish approach over the approach of dismantling Judaism in the name of universalism."

Katsav’s first actions aggravated many Israelis. An observant Jew, Katsav ordered a synagogue built in the presidential residence to allow regular minyans -- assemblies of 10 Jewish men -- for prayer. His first official visit was to a Kabbalist rabbi, Yitzhak Kadourie, who had urged religious Knesset members to vote for Katsav. Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism. At the meeting the rabbi reportedly pleaded with Katsav to pardon Aryeh Deri, a Shas politician recently convicted of fraud and breach of trust. Katsav so far has not responded to Kadourie’s request.

The Israeli press castigated Katsav, arguing that making a pilgrimage to a rabbi the first act of his presidency sent the wrong message to the vast majority of Israelis, who do not regard Kadourie or any other ultra-Orthodox rabbi as their spiritual mentor or a symbol of unity. Secular Israelis regard Orthodox Jews as divisive, anti-Zionist, and anti-democratic people who preach against acceptance of the rule of law, military or national service, and modern education.

Katsav also was criticized for his recent defense of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose remarks about Holocaust victims as "sinners" and Arabs as "snakes" stirred a heated international debate. Arguing that Yosef was misinterpreted, Katsav later repudiated the remarks of another Shas rabbi who blamed the recent death of a reservist on insults directed at Rabbi Yosef for his Holocaust comments.

Many Israeli liberals are concerned that Katsav is prone to further soften the wall between church and state.

"Katsav is not the first Israeli president to respect religious traditions," Michael Rivkin of the Shinui liberal party told Newsroom. "The country's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, frequented the synagogues near his house, as did his successor, Zalman Shazar. Presidents Navon and Herzog also showed respect to religious values, as any president of our state should. But their connection was first and foremost with a mainstream Judaism that respects Zionist values, the rule of law and understands the needs of modern society."

Dan Avnon, professor of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told Newsroom that "Judaism is not an institution, like the church in the West, so there is no issue of church and state in Israel. However, there is no constitution in Israel, and its Basic Law formula ‘Jewish and democratic state’ is open to subjective interpretations of what is the Jewish state. Some interpretations could contradict the democratic values. Hence, there is a serious challenge to separate religious authorities and interpreters from the state, and Halacha -- the body of Jewish law -- from civil legislation."

Copyright © 2000 Newsroom.
Used with permission.

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