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Yaakov Neeman, Israeli Justice Minister, Says Jewish Law Must Become Binding

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JERUSALEM — Israel's justice minister called for Jewish law to become binding in Israel, causing a stir Tuesday that cut to the heart of the country's simmering secular-religious divide.

Yaakov Neeman's office tried to contain the uproar Tuesday by saying his words were taken out of context and that he had no intention of replacing Israel's current legal system. But his comments touched a raw nerve among secular Israelis wary of what they consider to be religious coercion by the Orthodox Jewish minority.

Neeman, an observant Jew, told a rabbinical conference on Monday that the Bible contains "a complete solution to all the things we are dealing with."

"Step by step we will bestow religious law upon the citizens of Israel and transform religious law into the binding law of the state," he said. Israeli newspapers said the rabbis attending the conference applauded him wildly, but some lawmakers later attacked his remarks as antidemocratic.

Secular Jews make up about 80 percent of the Jewish population. While many participate in some religious observances, only the Orthodox adhere to Judaism's strict regimen of rules, including praying three times a day and not driving on the Sabbath.

Opposition lawmaker Haim Oron warned of a "troubling process of Talibanization" in Israel.

In the wake of the commotion, Neeman's office put out a statement Tuesday saying he spoke only "in broad terms" about "the importance of Jewish law in the life of the state."

The minister's remarks did not imply "a call to replace state laws with religious laws, either directly or indirectly," the statement said.

Speaking in the parliament Tuesday, Neeman said his remarks had been misunderstood. He added that rabbinical courts could provide practical help. "The justice system in Israel is overworked," he said, "and therefore disputes should be encouraged to be transferred by mutual agreement to an alternative judging system."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no immediate comment.

The notion of instituting religious law in a democratic society is a sensitive one in Israel, which is largely secular but marks the Jewish Sabbath and all Jewish holy days as national holidays and has always allowed rabbinical authorities control over procedures like marriage and divorce.

Secular Israelis are afraid that a wider application of religious law would bar them from activities such as driving, shopping or even turning on the television on the Sabbath.

Heavily religious Jerusalem, which has experienced a flight of secular Jewish residents over the past two decades, is the site of the most faith-based friction.

Over the summer, police clashed repeatedly with ultra-Orthodox protesters enraged by the city's decision to open a parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, when driving is banned by religious law. More recently, ultra-Orthodox activists have demonstrated against an Intel Corp. chip-making plant in Jerusalem because it operates on the Sabbath.

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