December 8, 2009 / 12:22 PM / 10 years ago

Israeli minister sparks outcry over religious law

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s justice minister said in remarks broadcast on Tuesday that the Jewish state should be ruled by Orthodox religious law, sparking an outcry from leading politicians who said the country’s democracy was at risk.

“The law of Torah should be the mandatory law of Israel,” Justice Minister Yaacov Ne’eman, a religious ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told an assembly of rabbis in a speech, portions of which were aired by Israel’s Army Radio.

His comments highlighted a sensitive issue in Israeli society, where the majority secular population sees religious Jews as wielding disproportionate political influence and the two communities are constantly at odds.

Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, but not a theocracy, despite the pressures of some of its rabbis.

Clerics of all faiths, including Muslims and Christians, have exclusive authority in civil affairs such as marriage, but their court systems are separate from those of the state’s judicial system.

Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who heads the centrist Kadima opposition party, said in a radio interview that Ne’eman’s comments “must worry every citizen who cares about Israel and our democratic values.”

“He should be fired immediately,” said Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister who once headed Israel’s left-wing Meretz party.

A former cabinet minister, Amnon Rubinstein, said Ne’eman’s plan “would amount to severing the majority of Israel” from the state, and mean most of Israel’s judges would have to be replaced by rabbis.

In response to the controversy, Ne’eman issued a written statement that sought to “clarify” his comments, saying they “were not intended as a call to replace the laws of the state with those of Orthodox law.”

Ne’eman said he had meant the remarks as a “general call to restore the glory of Hebrew law and on the significance of Hebrew law in the life of the state.”

Israeli religious leaders have long sought to enhance the influence of religious law. Their political power keeps most Israeli businesses shut on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath in keeping with traditions most Israelis do not observe.

But politicians of Ne’eman’s stature have rarely espoused publicly the idea of making the country’s legal system subject to religious dictates of any sort.

Israel’s population includes a sizeable minority of Muslims and Christians, many of whom are Palestinians, whose rights could also be prejudiced by any enhancement made to the authority of Jewish religious laws.

Netanyahu made no comment. His right-wing-dominated ruling coalition includes several religious parties whose members are known to support enhancing the influence of religious law.

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