Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kitniyot, Passover Preparations and Other Random Observations

I hope everyone enjoyed my April Fool’s column about the pigs in Beit Shemesh. Hopefully no one was too offended.

This time, I thought I would provide a few different observations about the frantic few days before Pesach (Passover) as Israel prepares for 7 days (this year 8) of Hametz free eating. This might be a bit more thematically disjointed than some of my other blog entries.

During Pesach, all around the world, observant Jews follow the biblical prohibition against eating Hametz, leavened foods made from five species of grains. Many people are extremely meticulous in their Pesach observance. They clean their houses completely to rid them of all traces of Hametz and then change over their dishes, kitchen utensils and other kitchen items to use only items that are “Kosher for Passover.”

As if this weren’t strenuous enough, many Ashkenazi Jews follow an additional prohibition against eating kitniyot, a whole additional category of prohibited products on Pesach, which derives from a rabbinical ruling from around 700 years ago. Sephardi Jews did not follow the ruling and continued to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Ashkenazi Jews followed it and continued to expand their list of prohibited items on Pesach. There is enough controversy about this issue to provide material for a lengthy essay. However, for reasons mainly of tradition, we have continued to follow this Ashkenazi custom, for now, which means no rice, beans, corn, or a range of other products on Pesach.

In Israel, where the combination of observant Sephardi Jews, observant Yemenite Jews and secular, non-observant Jews (of all different backgrounds), all of whom happily eat kitniyot during Pesach, vastly outnumbers the observant Ashkenazi community, it has become logistically more and more difficult to even follow the custom of avoiding kitniyot. For example, it is extremely difficult to find Kosher for Passover, kitniyot free margarine. One place in Ra’anana that I know of, Meatland, sells it – and there may be other places – but it is not sold in any major supermarket chain. All of the margarine is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” It is virtually impossible to find non-kitniyot cooking oil. Again, Meatland sells some – but it is palm oil – which, of course, is dangerously high in saturated fat content, as opposed to the Canola Oil that everyone else is using – which is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” You can get some olive oil – but it is quite pricey and it really changes the taste of some baked goods. I asked someone at Meatland if the margarine was kitniyot free. “All of our products are,” he answered, “we will never sell kitniyot during Pesach, God Willing” he added.

As another example, most of Ra’anana’s Kosher restaurants are open during Pesach but most are certified as “for kitniyot eaters only,” like the pizza places that use corn flour or the yogurt place that apparently has evil kitniyot in its yogurt. I suppose that by now, it probably makes sense to follow the old “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…,” on this issue, which is supported by relatively recent Conservative and Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish Rabbinical opinions (modern opinions), but so far we have resisted, out of deference to a silly family tradition that we continue to observe. There's even a Facebook page - the "kitniyot liberation front" dedicated to having Ashkenzi Jews eliminate the practice of prohibiting kitniyot during Pesach. But let’s face it; Judaism does have many traditions, derived from Rabbinic rulings, which are often not entirely logical.

Turning to another unrelated issue, I was reminded of the directness of Israeli society when I visited the local butcher. He asked what I wanted. I asked for some boneless chicken thighs. He told me that they were now all out and reminded me that there would now be no fresh meat until after Pesach, because of the holiday. He suggested I get some chicken breasts instead. He told me they were cheaper and lower in fat. He looked at me and told me that I look like a guy who should probably be worried about my cholesterol and so I would be better off eating the chicken breasts instead. I’m not necessarily saying he was wrong – but where else would you hear that from your local butcher, who I didn’t even know?

I also saw the Israeli economic system in action while I was in the supermarket. The woman ahead of me had a bill of about 780 N.I.S. That would be about $210. She negotiated a deal with the cashier (everything is negotiable in Israel) whereby she paid 180 N.I.S. in cash, 100 on a credit card and five post- dated cheques, each for 100 spread over the next 2 months. This was a supermarket bill!... Yet, Israelis pay in “multiple payments” everywhere – at the gas station, the local convenience store (the “makolet”) and other places. It seems like it must make things extremely complicated for both merchants and consumers. People can be paying in June for a supermarket bill from March, while making a new order that they will continue paying until October.

Yet somehow, with the pressure-filled preparations for detail oriented holidays (like Pesach, Sukkoth and others) throughout the year, the Israeli in-your-face directness and even the crazy state of the Israeli economy, Israel still managed to rank 14th in the 2012 World Happiness Report, 4 spots ahead of Great Britain and only 3 behind the United States. Not bad at all for a country facing existential threats from many of its surrounding neighbours, internal religious-secular tensions and chilly relationships with many of the world’s countries. Imagine how happy Israelis would be if we had peace!

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

More Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel: Swine Let Loose in Beit-Shemesh

A new organization has waddled into the religious-secular debate in Israel by stirring up a great deal of mud. HAZIRA (Chilonim Zazim – Yisraelim Rotzim Herut) (Secularists on the Move – Israelis Want Freedom) has taken responsibility for the strange incident in Beit Shemesh early yesterday morning. Somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m., a white cattle truck (M’sait bassar l’vana) stopped right near Beit Knesset Ohalei Ohavei Nashim and dropped off three large hogs. One witness reported that the van quickly sped away after letting the animals loose. It is unclear how the vehicle made its way into the area, which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic on Shabbat.

Congregants who were arriving late to Synagogue noticed the pigs meandering around just outside the synagogue doors. Since it was Shabbat, no one was able to contact the police or remove the swine. The pigs were apparently well groomed but were nevertheless a major affront to this very Orthodox Jewish community. One hog was wearing a sign that read “even pigs have rights.” Another pig was draped in a blue and white blanket.

At about 10:30 a.m., a crowd of 15-20 onlookers arrived, most of whom appeared to be secular Israelis. Some tried to take pictures which created tension since the use of cameras is forbidden for observant Jews. Worshippers were forced to pass by the pigs as they made their way out of the shul after services ended. One shul member was apparently so shocked at the sight of the three pigs that he passed out. Two other congregants, Lazar Wolfe and Moshe Tzayad, reportedly became ill. Wolfe later told Yidiyot Ahronot that the idea of seeing pigs in a blanket just after having eaten at the Kiddush made him sick.

About an hour after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Menachem Hayim Moshe Yisrael Reuven, commonly known in Beith Shemesh as “the Mahmir” provided a statement to the press. Calling this one of Israel’s most insidious and provocative acts in the ongoing dispute between religious and secular Jews, he referred to Torah passages from Vayikrah (Leviticus) calling for the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for this type of the desecration of the Sabbath. He called for immediate arrests and speedy prosecution.

The chair of the newly formed organization, HAZIRA, Izzy Boten, issued a press statement late Saturday evening, responding to the attacks by Rabbi Mahmir. “Pigs are not illegal in Israel and should have the right to dignity and fair treatment. Although this might have offended some, we chose to drop the pigs off near the synagogue as the quintessential expression of the fight against religious coercion. Pigs are rarely seen or heard in Israel, which is symptomatic of the power that the religious hold over the secular in Israel. Our aim is to free Israeli society from this oppression.”

In a strange twist, the incident created an unusual coalition of Arab and Jewish Knesset Members who issued a joint statement calling for greater religious tolerance, mutual respect and a continuation of the “status quo” as it pertains to pigs and pig products. They proposed that the Knesset institute a rule change prohibiting boorish behaviour in the Israeli parliament as an initial response to this incident.

The “Swine Affair,” as it has been named, has divided many Israelis and led to Op Ed pieces in all of Israel’s major daily newspapers. Noting the various protests that have been held earlier in the year in relation to issues such as public transportation on Shabbat and religious –based gender discrimination, some writers have asked that society also consider other areas of religious oppression including rules of Kashruth. Others have argued that the incident went too far. “Despite the differences of opinion between secular and Orthodox Israelis on a range of issues, no mainstream organization advocates making pigs kosher” argued the Op Ed piece printed in Ma’ariv.

One Yisrael Hayom reporter even contacted convicted rapist and former Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who reportedly claimed that “there is no place for pigs in Israeli society.”

The political fallout is likely to continue over the coming weeks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ongoing War with Gaza and Implications for Israel-Iran

Since Friday March 9, 2012, more than 200 rockets have been fired from Gaza to various parts of Israel. These attacks have been aimed at Beer Sheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and even the more northern city of Gedera. Israel has responded with a number of air raids on Gaza. Many Israelis have been injured in the rocket attacks. There are also estimates that more than 30 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's responding raids, some of whom were civilians.

The latest round of violence erupted after Israel assassinated Zuhair al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee. Al-Qaissi was linked by Israeli military officials to an August attack from the Sinai that resulted in the deaths of 8 Israelis and injuries to 40 others. Al-Qaissi was reportedly planning another similar attack.

Although the period leading up to this latest round of escalation has been described as a "period of calm," some 50 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza over the past two months, during this "truce." It's not very hard to imagine what the United States might do after receiving one or two rockets from Canada or Mexico, let alone 50.

Since the rocket attacks began last Friday, more than 200,000 children were forced to stay home as schools were closed across a large area of the Israeli south. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis missed work and there was significant property damage caused by the rockets.

The damage is generally viewed by Israelis as only a small fraction of what Israel might face if it were involved in an all-out war with Gaza, Lebanon (Hezbollah forces), Iran and potentially even Syria. Nevertheless, the psychological impact has been tremendous, particularly on those families living within range of these attacks. And despite these challenges, a solid majority of Israelis are apparently still supportive of Israeli preemptive action on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel has successfully deployed its Iron Dome anti-missile system to provide defence to these attacks from Gaza. The system has reportedly succeeded at intercepting a large number of rockets though the estimated success rate various widely. The Iron Dome is primarily intended to prevent rocket attacks on civilian areas and has had some success in that regard. Most of the rockets were allegedly fired by Islamic Jihad and some smaller offshoot organizations with public claims from Gaza that Hamas was not involved. One might be forgiven for being skeptical about these claims.

Although Egypt brokered a stated "truce" on Tuesday, rockets attacks have continued with at least 3 rockets fired at Beer Sheva earlier today (Thursday March 15, 2012). Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have denied any responsibility, pointing to smaller "splinter" groups.

Israel's Iron Dome system is not an anti-ballistic missile system. Israel has been working on the Arrow ABM system, which is designed to intercept longer range missiles and rockets but it is not yet fully developed. The upshot is that Israel is likely to face very heavy rocket fire from a variety of geographic sources if hostilities break out with Iran. Such attacks will cause heavy structural and economic damage and may also result in a significant number of Israeli casualties.

The difficult calculation for Israel and its political leadership is weighing this heavy cost against the enormous costs of a potential nuclear attack from Iran. Given the very public statements made by Iranian leader Ahmadinejad calling for Israel's destruction, coupled with Iran's vigorous nuclear weapons program, it may well be too perilous for Israel (and for the rest of the world) to stand by and wait for this attack, even if by so doing, Israel can buy another few years of relative peace.

Israel's experiences in the second Lebanon War in 2006 and its various skirmishes with Gaza since than have suggested that any future war that Israel might face with its hostile neighbours will be markedly more damaging to Israel's civilian population than any of its previous wars. But the reality is that Israel is constantly facing an existential struggle which is only likely to dissipate when a real Arab spring arrives and brings with it widespread peace. Looking at what has been taking place in Syria, Iran, Gaza and even Egypt, the Middle East, unfortunately, is still stuck in the middle of a cold winter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim in Ra'anana

As the news is filled with reports of potential hostilities between Israel and Iran, we are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is a holiday marking the victory by the Jewish community of Persia - which, though the bravery of the story's heroes, Mordechai and Esther, was saved from a plot by the evil villain, Haman, to destroy the country's Jewish community. Sounds familiar? Well, we'll leave the discussion of modern day Iran (ancient Persia) for another day...

Purim is one of the happiest holidays on the Jewish calendar. Throughout Israel, cities celebrate "Adloyadah festivals." "Adloyada" (literally - "until you don't know") comes from the tradition of having a bit too much to drink on Purim and celebrating wildly. But these are not drunken festivals. (Unlike the parties that many people are attending tonight and tomorrow...) Far from it. These are family oriented street parades, held in the centre of many of Israel's cities.

Ra'anana held its festival yesterday, the day before Purim began. The parade began at 4 p.m. All of the city's schools were represented with themed floats and a group of selected students marching along. Ra'anana, like most other Israeli cities, has a variety of school types - religious, secular, pluralistic, and special schools for art, music and sports programs. All of these different schools were represented. Thousands of people lined the main street, Ahuza Street, which was closed off to all traffic from about 3:30 p.m. The parade marched along Ahuza for about an hour and a half.

Meanwhile, the Ra'anana City centre ("Yad L'Banim") was turned into a giant dance club from the early afternoon. Students, who came to school in a wide range of costumes, were let out of school at noon. Thousands of kids made their way to Yad L'Banim, which was set up with a DJ, lots of security and a party atmosphere. The weather cooperated - it was a sunny 20C.

The holiday of Purim officially began at sundown this evening. Across Israel(and throughout the world), Jewish people went to Synagogue, community centres or other locations to hear a public reading of the "Megillah" - the Book of Esther - which is read from a parchment scroll. Israelis were also frantically preparing baskets of food and sweets to give out to neighbours and friends tomorrow - as is customary on Purim. Many Israelis are also participating in the Mitzvah of charitable gifts to the needy, another Purim custom.

Kids are off school for three days - Wednesday, Thursday and Friday - to celebrate this relatively "minor" holiday. But for many kids, the holiday is a favourite. Unlike a "chag" - a "holy day" - buses are running, stores and restaurants are open and there are no extensive restrictions on activities. Most people are working, at least a half day. People everywhere dress up in all kinds of costumes and there is a general carnival atmosphere. And to top it off - the temperature is predicted to hit the high 20s C by the weekend, marking a real change from the much needed rainy season that has soaked Israel over the past few months.

The festivities will be continuing all over the country for the rest of the week. There are Adloyadah festivals in many other cities on Purim and the day after. Purim officially begins with Megillah readings in the City of Jerusalem one day later than the rest of the world (and the rest of Israel) - tomorrow night. And Israelis will be celebrating with festive meals across the country in the afternoon on Purim day.

Because of the timing of Shabbat this year - kids will wind up having had a break from school from Tuesday at noon - until Sunday morning. For many kids, this is definitely the best part of celebrating Purim.

Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Justice Joubran, Arabs and Haredim in Israel: Loyalty, Hatikvah and Universal Conscription?

(Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran - from Haaretz)

Justice Asher Grunis was sworn in on Tuesday as the new President (Chief Justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court. Among a range of impressive qualifications, Justice Grunis also has a Toronto connection - a PhD from York University. Justice Grunis replaces Justice Dorit Beinisch, who was the first woman to hold the post of President of Israel's highest court.

The induction ceremony was held at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Along with a number of speeches, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("the Hope") was performed and the panel of Israeli Supreme Court judges sang along. That is, with the exception of Arab Justice Salim Joubran. Justice Joubran apparently has idealogical objections to singing Israel's anthem. His public non-participation has touched off a debate in some circles about the level of loyalty to the State of Israel that ought to be required for a justice of the Supreme Court.

On one level, the issue that has been raised related to "Hatikvah." The Israeli national anthem speaks of the yearning of the Jewish soul to return to the Jewish homeland, the land from which the Jewish people were exiled. The anthem concludes with the dream of being a "free nation, in our land, the land of Zion, Jeruslem." The anthem is glorious and it captures the essence of the Zionist project - to build a Jewish homeland in which the Jewish people can live as a nation. For Israel, as a Jewish state, the anthem is appropriate and relevant.

But for Israel as a democratic State, which protects the rights of all citizens to live in the country, to practice their religious beliefs and to maintain their own national, cultural or ethnic identities and aspirations, it is understandable that Arab citizens would refuse to sing this particular anthem. I really don't see a problem with that. Other countries have equally offensive anthems. In Canada, the French version of the national anthem includes the line "they know how to carry the cross," suggesting that only Christians are true citizens. I cringe every time I hear it and would certainly refuse to sing it publicly at this type of induction ceremony, but I really don't believe that would be used as a litmus test to measure one's commitment to the country. In fact, in a country like Canada, it is particulary obnoxious because Canada purports to treat all Canadians equally, regardless of religious affiliation. Israel declares openly that it is a Jewish and democratic State, so there is a difference.

On the other hand, the issue of "loyalty" does have other aspects to it and is not confined to the question of whether or not a Supreme Court Judge should publicly sing Hatikvah. Israeli Jews are subject to universal conscription and must serve in the Israeli army or perform national service. There are currently exemptions to this requirement. Ultra-religious Jews, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas are exempt, for the time being. I have written about this in other blogs. Arab Israelis are also exempt, though Druze Israelis serve in the army. Overall, this means that approximately 75% of Israeli citizens of draft age are now eligible to be conscripted with the remainder exempt. Israeli army service can greatly affect a person's future employability with many employers placing a great deal of weight on the type of military service that a candidate performed.

The issue of military service is quite different than that of the public singing of Israel's national anthem. Here, changes should be made. If Israel, as a democracy, takes steps to ensure that rights and freedoms and all types of employment are open to all citizens, then all citizens should share the responsibility of protecting the State.

Steps are already being taken to conscript the Ultra-Religious Jews. This will assist the State of Israel and it will also improve the post-army employability of these Haredim. There may still be an exemption for a very small number of exceptional students, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas, as envisioned by Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. However, the vast majority of Haredim should be expected to perform military or national service.

With respect to Israel's Arab population, this is another group that should also be expected to perform military or national service. Israel's Arabs work in Israel in every conceivable profession, from blue collar jobs to working as professors, judges, doctors and lawyers. Surely, as part of "equality," military or national service is a reasonable requirement in a country in which universal conscription is a necessity and a reality.

Israel's politicians and military leaders will need to take steps to ensure that the army or the national service can and will accomodate any unique needs of Arab conscripts, just as they have begun to take steps to ensure that Ultra-Religious soldiers can be properly integrated. They will also have to sort out security and loyalty issues. The flip side is that Israel's Arab minority population will also have to recognize that there is a price to be paid for living in the only truly free and democratic country in the Middle East. They should be prepared to participate in protecting that privilege. Ultimately, an army with full universal conscription in Israeli is likely to lead to better integration and understanding between diverent religious and ethnic groups.

If Israel does implement truly universal military or national service, it will then make sense to ask candidates for high level positions, including Supreme Court positions, about their past military or national service. They will probably still not be required to publicly sing "Hatikvah" but it seems entirely reasonable to expect that a Supreme Court judge would have performed military or national service in a country with universal conscription, provided that minority rights are fully protected.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blowing Winds in Israel - of Different Kinds

There are lots of different kinds of winds blowing these days in Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

At the most literal level, Israel is currently enjoying wind gusts of between 40 and 60 km per hour. Blowing winds in Ra'anana just a few moments ago were measured in the range of 50 km an hour. Coupled with on and off rain, it's quite the outdoor experience. Snow is expected to arrive today or tomorrow in Israel's northern-most regions.

Friendlier winds blew in from California just a couple of days ago. At the Academy Award ceremonies on Sunday night, the Israeli director and two of the stars of the film "Footnote," which had been nominated for an Oscar, met with the Iranian delegation, which was there on behalf of the Oscar winning film, "The Separation." Unfortunately, it is not that often these days that Iranian and Israeli delegations have the chance to meet anywhere under cordial conditions. For example, on July 25, 2011, an Iranian swimmer backed out of a swim meet rather than swim in a 100 metre breast stroke race in which an Israeli swimmer was competing. There are many other examples. Perhaps filmmakers see themselves as more independent than professional athletes. In any case, as reported in Haaretz, the Israeli filmmakers were quite happy to have had the opportunity to chat with their Iranian counterparts and the feeling seems to have been mutual.

Different types of winds are headed towards Washington next week as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sets off to meet with President Obama to discuss Iran and its nuclear threats against Israel. On this issue, information of every kind is swirling around, ranging from rumours of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities to alleged reports from Wikileaks that Israel was already involved in extensive covert operations to destroy Iranian facilities on the ground. These winds could soon develop into a much bigger storm though that remains to be seen.

There were some very foul smelling winds in Hebron over the weekend. Apparently a riot broke out while a funeral was taking place. Clashes occurred between Palestinians and Israelis, which resulted in the IDF using "the skunk" to disperse the crowd. "The skunk" is a non-lethal, foul smelling substance that Israeli forces have been using for a couple of years now to disperse demonstrators in certain situations. Given the variety of legal proceedings that some acting and former Israeli politicians have faced, the weapon may well have been developed accidentally by capturing the essence of some inappropriate Ministerial activity...but let's not go there.

Finally, the lethal and very hot winds of Syria have, fortunately, not reached Israel despite the close proximity between the two countries. While Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad continues to use deadly force against rebel forces (primarily Sunni Muslims, according to a recent article in the New York Times) and anyone else who might be in the way, the world continues to sit quietly, even in the face of the apparent killing of large numbers of civilians. While the U.S. has raised some concerns and that very credible world body, the UN Human Rights Council, has also thrown its voice into the mix, the world response to Assad to this point appears to be nothing but a puff of smoke. This too could turn into a much larger fire that could spread to Iraq and other neighbouring countries given the sectarian nature of much of the fighting. For now, Israel's public engagement in this matter has been very limited.

Overall, while there is usually quite a bit of hot air blowing around in the Middle East, it is not always accompanied by such of variety of winds. But I suppose that is what keeps life interesting.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buses in Tel-Aviv? Ultra-Orthodox to go to the Army? More on Secular-Religious Tensions in Israel

On February 13, 2012, I wrote about some issues of religious-secular tension in Israel. There have been some further developments and I thought I would comment.

Last week, the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council voted 13-7 to ask the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to permit buses to run in Tel-Aviv on Shabbat (Saturday). As I have discussed, buses do not run in most of Israel on Shabbat, which is the national day of rest. There are some exceptions. For example, Haifa, one of Israel's largest cities, does have bus service on Shabbat. At this point, the Ministry of Transportation has indicated that it will refuse the request and will maintain the "Status Quo."

The "Status Quo" in Israel denotes the agreement entered into between religious and non-religious parties at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The then-future founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, wrote a letter in which he set out certain principles that the State of Israel would follow. Though the State would be democratic and would provide for freedom of thought and expression, it would recognize certain religious principles that would form part of the national law of the fledgling state. Included in this "Status Quo" was the idea that Shabbat would be a national day of rest and that all public institutions would have Kosher kitchens.

There was also an agreement that a certain number of highly observant Ultra-Orthdox Jews would be exempt from military service so that they could devote their full time and attention to furthering their religious studies. It was anticipated that this would be a very small number of students and would therefore be tolerable for the State to allow this exception to an otherwise universal system of military conscription.

Recently, this "Status Quo" has come under fire in different ways. Secular Israelis have perceived an increasing level of Ultra-Orthodox religious observance in certain public areas. For example, there has been a proliferation of gender-segregated buses (particularly in Jerusalem), Ultra-Orthdox opposition to women singing in the army (something women have done, without complaint, since the Israeli army began), other issues of the exclusion of women in billboard advertising, public state-sanctioned ceremonies and other fora. This attempt to set increasingly stringent boundaries by certain Ultra-Orthodox groups has led to a series of public protests, many of which have been organized by the "Yisrael Hofshit" ("Be Free Israel") Movement.

Perhaps, partially in response to these perceived attacks on the Status Quo by Ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Israelis, secular Israelis have felt emboldened to raise their own concerns about the Status Quo and to take steps to challenge it. One area of such concern has been the issue of public transportation, particularly in the Tel-Aviv area. As members of the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council have suggested, Tel-Aviv does not generally bar people from driving on Shabbat nor does it prevent taxis from running or even public passenger mini-buses. It is only large buses and trains that do not run. Mayor Ron Huldai and those who support him have argued that it is unfair that those who have the money to own a car or pay for a cab are free to do whatever they want on Shabbat whereas those who cannot afford car or cab fare, particularly students, soldiers and seniors, but including many other Tel-Aviv residents as well, are all "grounded" each Shabbat. Those who oppose the Tel-Aviv Municipality's request for Shabbat bus service have argued in favour of the Status Quo which has been in existence now for more than 60 years. They argue that it will further erode the Jewish character of the State and will commercialize Shabbat and negatively impact the quality of life in Israel.

The other "Status Quo" issue that is being publicly debated is the issue of military exemption for Ultra-Religious Israelis. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the exemption is now unconstitutional and cannot be continued. Israel's High Court held that the law created inequality in Israel. An article in Haaretz on February 23, 2012 noted that there now 62,000 Ultra-Orthodox Israelis taking advantage of the Tal Law to avoid military service. Israel's Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that this situation could not continue.

The move to eliminate, wholly or partially, the exemption from military service for Ultra-Orthodox and the movement to institute public transportation in many other areas of Israel are both signs that the long standing Status Quo is being challenged. There are certainly other challenges on the horizon including the challenge to the existing system whereby Jewish weddings, burials, conversions and ritual circumcisions are all within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.

All of these challenges are related to the issue of where to draw the line between democracy and freedom and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. These issues are likely to lead to continued considerable debate in the future as religious and secular Israelis seek to find a manageable compromise that will be workable for both sides.