Growing secular, Orthodox Jewish rift worries Israeli leaders

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Shocked by the spectacle of Jews trying to burn a synagogue, the Israeli government established a public council Thursday to address what is a growing rift between secular and religious Jews. Political leaders expressed concern over the depth of hostility between the nation's secular majority and its ultra-Orthodox minority that led to an attack Wednesday on a Tel Aviv synagogue.

``It is time for us to stop and take stock of what's happening to our society,'' President Chaim Herzog said.

An anonymous caller who said he was part of a secular Jewish group determined to fight the ultra-Orthodox claimed responsibility Wednesday for the synagogue attack. The caller warned there would be more attacks if the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi community, continued attacking public bus stops.

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The synagogue attack seems to have brought to a head a dispute between the religious and secular Jews that has simmered since the state was founded in 1948. At the heart of the conflict, Israeli commentators say, is the fact that the tiny, militant ultra-Orthodox community does not recognize the legitimacy of the state, because it believes the Jewish state can only be established by the Messiah. The vast majority of secular Jews would like to limit the degree of religious involvement with affairs of state.

Jerusalem, the center of the Haredi community, is also the center of tensions between Haredi and secular Jews. Over the years, religious zealots have attacked and beaten Mayor Teddy Kollek, stoned cars driven on the Sabbath, prevented archeological excavations on sites where they believe ancient Jewish burial grounds exist, and driven secular families from some neighborhoods.

In recent weeks, bands of black-clothed Haredi men have been patroling the streets of Jerusalem and other cities, armed with cans of black spray paint. The men deface bus shelters that display advertisements showing women clad in bathing-suits or shorts. Some bus shelters have been burned -- a total of 105 have been vandalized in Jerusalem alone, says Kollek aide Rafi Davara.

The conflict seems to be spreading, and the level of violence has increased, government officials say. On Tuesday, Mr. Kollek described the attacks by the ultra-Orthodox as ``a civil rebellion'' and urged the government to crack down. Mr. Davara said Thursday that he believed the attacks by the ultra-Orthodox are politically and financially motivated and are due partly to internal divisions within the community. He also claimed they are timed to coincide with ultra-Orthodox fund-raising drives in the US.

``Every picture or article in a newspaper enables them to send someone to New York to say `Help us, we're trying to maintain the holy character of Jerusalem.' This kind of action is a very good fund-raising mechanism,'' Davara says.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and other Israeli leaders seemed determined to put a stop to the cycle of attacks and counterattacks before any loss of life occurs. Mr. Peres said Wednesday that Israel must ``permit pluralism, but without permitting it to go beyond the law.'' He said police would use force, if necessary, to stop the violence.

It is difficult to underestimate the hostility between many secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. To the ultra-Orthodox, nonobservant Jews are a threat to the continuation of the Jewish people. To the secular Jews, the ultra-Orthodox Jews are a painful reminder of a traumatic Diaspora past.

``There's a great sense of frustration,'' one secular Jew says. ``We hate them [the Haredi], but they're Jews and we're Jews -- it's a very uncomfortable feeling.''

The influence of religious Jews in Israel is greater than the size of their population (some 18 percent of Jews describe themselves as Orthodox) because no Israeli government has been formed without the religious parties. When the religious parties hold seats crucial to the largest coalition partner, they are able to extract government concessions that determine the way of life of all Israelis.

``They want to run our lives, and yet they don't accept the state, they don't serve in the Army, they don't want anything to do with us,'' says Amnon, a secular Jew. ``[We] have been tolerant for a long time and it has only brought us more trouble from these people.''

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