From Haaretz:

Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman on Monday said he believes Jewish law (Halakha) should be the binding law in Israel, Army Radio reported.

“Step by step, we will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halakha into the binding law of the nation,” said Ne’eman at a Jewish law convention at the Regency hotel in Jerusalem, in the presence of many rabbis and rabbinical judges.

“We must bring back the heritage of our fathers to the nation of Israel,” Ne’eman said. “The Torah has the complete solution to all of the questions we are dealing with,” he added.

However, Ne’eman’s statements during the conference were received with applauds from participants, among them Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Other guests at the event included Likud MK Yisrael Katz, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.

Kadima chairwoman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni on Tuesday harshly criticized Ne’eman’s comments, saying they should be troubling to “every citizen who cares about what happens in Israel in terms of its values and democracy.”

Ne’man’s remarks also drew criticism from left-wing politicians, including Meretz leader Haim Oron and Hadash chairman Mohammed Barakeh.

“It is unfortunate that the justice minister has detached himself from the state of Israel’s basic values and is being disolyal to civic and national principles,” Oron said on Tuesday, using a play on words on Ne’eman’s name, which means “loyal” in Hebrew.

“His remarks reflect a disturbing process of ‘Talibanization’ occurring in Israeli society,” Oron continued.

Barakeh called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oust Ne’eman from his position, saying, “The man who sees his main role as establishing a fundamentalist Israel is a threat to the country’s democracy.”

In the wake of the uproar caused by his remarks, the Justice Ministry on Tuesday issued a statement denying that Ne’eman intends to replace Israel’s legal system with Jewish law.

“Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman clarifies that his comments did not contain an appeal, either directly or indirectly, to replace the laws of the state with Halakhic laws,” a statement from the ministry said.

Ynet has more from the Ministry:

“The minister spoke in broad terms on restoring the Jewish law and its importance in state life.”

Clearly the Government of Israel is embarrassed. Good. It should be.

There’s only one problem with that clarification. It isn’t plausible. The statement – “Step by step, we will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halakha into the binding law of the nation” – is very clearly an appeal to replace the laws of the state with Halakhic laws.

Here’s the quote from Haaretz in Hebrew:

“צעד אחר צעד ננחיל לאזרחי ישראל את חוקי התורה ונהפוך את ההלכה למשפט המחייב במדינה”

“יש להחזיר למדינת ישראל את מורשת האבות, דברי התורה הראשונים והאחרונים שבה יש פתרון מלא לכל השאלות שאנו עוסקים בהם”.

Here’s the thing. Ne’eman isn’t – as far as I can tell – a man with a background in religious nutterdom. Rather, he appears to have come to this disturbing and dangerous position late in his political career, after a lifetime of service in conventional democratic  politics.

What could conceivably bring this politician to make such a remarkable statement? One which has provoked quite proper and reflexive revoltion across the political spectrum, from Meretz to Kadima?

The answer, I’d guess, is that the speech was given to a conference of religious extremists, including our old friend, Eli Yishai. If you’re a politician, you give your audience what they want to hear. And, clearly, this is the sort of thing that the theocratically inclined want to be told will happen.

Indeed, at the very same conference, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef expressed similar sentiments:

“אין הבדל אם מדובר בשופטים גויים או יהודים, אם הם דנים בחוקות של גויים, כאילו הם גויים. אסור להתדיין אצלם. רק אצל חכמי ישראל ובתנאי שהם שופטים על פי חוקי התורה הקדושה”.

In other words:

“There is no difference between Jewish judges and non-Jewish judges. If they are using non-Jewish law, it is as if they are Gentiles. It is forbidden to bring your disputes to them. Only with the Sages of Israel, and on the condition that they adjudicate by the laws of the sacred Torah”

This event encapsulates the struggle between secularism and representative democracy. The furious reaction to this gaffe demonstrates that Israel is a country whose population will not tolerate theocracy. A secular government should not prevent those of all faiths and traditions from pursuing the harmless religious practices that they believe are divinely mandated. Likewise, religious parties should never seek to impose their chosen religious requirements on those who reject them.

It is that most basic feature of the democratic liberal tradition that Ya’akov Ne’eman has forgotten.

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