TV Comic Further Splits Israel Between Religious and Secular

Every Friday, a comic named Gil Kopatch dons thick glasses, opens the Torah, and starts his shtick on Israeli TV.

"And Sarai threw Hagar out of the tent," he read on one recent show. "I guess Sarah never changes," he said, referring to Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who allegedly fired her nanny for burning soup on the stove.

His jokes have riled powerful right-wing religious Jews, who don't even turn on their TVs on Friday night because they are observing the Jewish Sabbath. Parliament members from religious parties deem the show heresy and demand it be taken off state-run television.

Parliamentarian Shlomo Benizri, describing Mr. Kopatch as a "wicked clown," has threatened to bring down Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government if the show is not dumped.

Indeed, many of Kopatch's jokes are crude. But the difference in how Israelis respond to these jokes hints at the stark divide in Israeli society - a divide between secular and religious Jews that often draws more local attention than the Mideast peace process. The split is so great that the two sides often seem headed for a culture war.

Secular Israel is the land of the goateed Kopatch, of funky Tel Aviv nightclubs and trendy teens with pierced navels, of high-tech companies and yuppies who worship American pop culture and add a Mediterranean flair.

Religious Israel is the land of Benizri and others known as haredim - which means trembling or God-fearing. They wear pious black, are driven by traditional Jewish beliefs, and want to see more Israelis follow their suit.

If there is such a cultural battle, it's one that many secular Israelis feel they are losing. In Jerusalem, the Orthodox have just won their fight to close a main road on the Sabbath, during which travel is forbidden for them. To the haredim, the mere sight of cars driving by on the day of rest is offensive.

And the Orthodox have even begun taking the fight to the traditionally secular city of Tel Aviv. Agudat Yisrael, one branch of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, planned a demonstration in Tel Aviv yesterday against what it calls the desecration of the Sabbath, when secular Jews are more often traipsing to nightclubs than to synagogues.

But Tel Aviv Mayor Ronni Milo vows his city it will remain tolerant. He suggests the Orthodox are out of bounds by trying to impose the norms of Jerusalem on Tel Aviv. They "feel some kind of power intoxication" as a result of the May elections, he says.

Many observers think the religious right was not only empowered by Netanyahu's election victory, but they have become steadily more adamant and outspoken.

"They dare say things [openly] they only used to say behind closed doors," says Susan Hattis Rolef, a political scientist in Jerusalem.

And the two subcultures' value systems are widely different. "It's a problem when one part of society believes in democracy, free speech, and pluralism, and one side believes it all is a necessary evil that, with the help of God, will disappear," Ms. Rolef adds.

As Kopatch said during a recent parliamentary hearing, he speaks "in such light tones because that's the language my audience speaks. What language should I use, Yiddish? They don't speak that.

"If you believe [Biblical characters] really existed, you have to believe they were human beings and had psychological motivations," he said in a recent interview. "The text itself is not holy. Only God is holy."

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