Tilting toward theocracy in Mr. Begin's Israel

Has Prime Minister Begin bought his new coalition government at too high a cost in theocratic concessions? The comparisons being made to Muslim Iran seem vastly overdrawn. But some of the advance concerns by good friends of Israel appear to be underscored by this week's terms of agreement among Mr. Begin's Likud bloc and three small religious parties. They are such as to demand the most sensitive implementation or rivision to avoid political instability at home and sharp controversy abroad.

The latter already reaches to the American Jewish community, whose main religious branches are Reform and Conservative -- rather than Orthodox -- Judaism. These appear to be downgraded by a pledge in the coalition agreement to amend the "law of return" that gives immigrant Jews automatic Israeli citizenship. Under the amendment, converts to Judaism would be excluded from the provision unless converted by Orthodox rabbis.

This seems to be a step in the direction noted last month by Martin Peretz when he wrote of parties with "often egregious" religious demands going so far as to want the Knesset to give a restrictive answer to the question, "Who is Jew?" Mr. Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, is one of the friends of Israel mentioned above, and his article perhaps most cogently expressed the advance concerns about what kind of government might emerge after the narrow June election.

Now details can be added to what he saw as the heavy price "in terms of further theocratic encroachments on a predominantly secular population." Among Mr. Begin's reported concessions are military exemptions for religious reasons, increased aid for students in religious schools, restrictions on Sabbath activities by the national airline, railways, and other government activities.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the factions demanding such promises are uniformly hawkish in a political sense. They include members whose religious zeal is evidently paramount over all other interests, including governance.

Mr. Peretz and other analysts see much more than religious problems among the challenges of Israeli government. Yet, having been there during the election rallies, he came back to the United States with the impression which so many have from afar: that, in the midst of all the deepened cleavages and sharpened ideologies, the democratic system "still seems vibrant." As long as this is true , the ups and downs of government c an be weathered.

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