Israel's religious split over the time of day

On Sunday, ultraorthodox Jews defeated a measure to extend daylight-saving time, citing religious traditions.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On the surface, the plan of Interior Minister Avraham Poraz to enlighten Israelis seemed straightforward: stay on daylight-saving time all year round and in the summer move the clocks ahead an additional hour.

"My idea was to attune our lives to the sun," says the secularist politician. "If it was light out until 9 p.m. people could go to the sea after work, there would be fewer car accidents, and we would save electricity."

But in Israel, where religion remains so influential in public life that it determines even the time of day, Mr. Poraz's tampering with the clock meant colliding with tradition and opening up the painful and still unresolved question of what it means to be a Jewish state.

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His failed experiences with changing the clock offer the latest example of how coalition politics has largely thwarted the ambitious "secularist revolution" promised by the Shinui (Change) party, which gained a robust fifteen seats in the February 2003 elections on a plank of overturning orthodox religious power and destroying the traditional status quo that gives wide space to religion in public life.

In deference to religious sensibilities, daylight-saving time in Israel ends well before it does in the United States. The clock is turned back just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that fell this year last Saturday. This reduces by an hour the fast that is observed as part of the bid to atone for sins.

But the Poraz plan, its detractors argued, had implications for much more than Yom Kippur. Nissim Dahan of the ultraorthodox Shas party, termed it "a declaration of war against ultraorthodox Judaism in Israel." The reason: According to Jewish tradition, the Sabbath ends when three stars are spotted. If it gets dark at 10 p.m. rather than at 8 p.m., many Israelis will opt to desecrate the Sabbath rather than lose their Saturday night's enjoyment. "It would cause less observance of Judaism, making the country less of a Jewish state," Mr. Dahan says.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has struggled to balance the competing influences of secular and religious ideals. Not wishing to alienate a segment of the population, and needing orthodox parties as coalition partners, Israel's founders opted for a status quo providing for wide influence by orthodox religious authorities on daily life such as keeping kosher for the army, recognizing only orthodox Jewish marriages, and restricting transport and business on the Sabbath.

The sense among many Israelis that they were being dictated to by an orthodox religious minority helped propel Shinui to its election success in 2003. Shinui promised to bring recognition to reform and conservative Judaism, start public transportation on the Sabbath, draft ultraorthodox seminary students (traditionally exempt from military service) into the army, and enact civil marriage. A survey conducted in July by the Dahaf Research Institute for the Forum for Free Choice in Marriage showed that 59 percent of Israeli Jews believe there should be a civil-marriage option.

But even with such support for its ideas, it has been a rough ride for Shinui, especially lately, because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs the support of the National Religious Party (NRP), an orthodox pro-settler coalition partner, and of ultraorthodox Knesset members for his plan to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

On Sunday, the NRP torpedoed Poraz's time change by arguing that it would disrupt morning prayers by religious Israelis. Morning prayers can only be recited according to orthodox law after the "first appearance of the sun" The prayers take up to an hour to recite.

"Hundreds of thousands of Jews who pray in the morning will not be able to get to work on time because a late sunrise will force them to pray later than 7 [a.m.]," says Zevulun Orlev, the NRP Social Welfare Minister.

Mr. Sharon's support for the smaller NRP on the clock issue, analysts say, is part of a pattern of the Likud party tilting the balance against Shinui reform.

"Likud is no longer a secular party, it is traditional, and they don't want to cut their ties with the traditional sector," says Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist. By traditional, Mr. Hofnung means Israelis who do not follow orthodox religious law, but observe some traditions, such as keeping a kosher home and fasting on Yom Kippur.

"There is religious coercion of a minority that tells the majority what to do," Poraz says bitterly of the killing of his idea by a 13-5 cabinet vote.

Another factor in Shinui's inability to translate its electoral success into secularist legislation is that, unlike the NRP, it has no credible threat of resigning from the coalition, analysts say. Two NRP Knesset members (MKs) left the government to protest the Gaza withdrawal plan and the party actually bolted from its partnership with then Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. "Shinui has leverage, but is afraid to use it," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Haaretz. "They are afraid to be outside. They don't want to lose their ministerial jobs." In August, the party reversed its promise never to serve with an ultra-orthodox party in the same coalition

Ronny Brison, a Shinui MK, says that the Gaza disengagement plan "has limited our political maneuvering capability" on religious-secular issues since the party wants to stay in government to ensure there is a withdrawal from Gaza. "This is such a major issue that you don't make the usual threats to leave," he says. But he stressed the party is determined to pursue its current effort to legislate civil marriage. He concedes it had to forgo its effort to start transportation on the Sabbath and to gain recognition for non-orthodox conversions, but says Shinui did succeed in abolishing the ministry of religious affairs and reducing welfare payments to large ultraorthodox families.

Shinui's real problem, says Eldar, is the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians, something that marginalizes its secularist agenda. "When push comes to shove Israelis expect their parties to deliver the goods on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and everything else is secondary" says Eldar. "Separating church and state is like dealing with how to set up chairs on the deck when the Titanic is sinking."

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