Israel's 'Culture War' Heats Up in Jerusalem Secular Jews Try to Counter Growing Influence of the Religious Right, Whose Vision of Israel Includes Observance of Strict Jewish Law

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Israel's 'Culture War' Heats Up in Jerusalem Secular Jews Try to Counter Growing Influence of the Religious Right, Whose Vision of Israel Includes Observance of Strict Jewish Law


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The battle lines for control of Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan street had already been drawn: Lining the road were thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, sweltering in the heat under traditional broad-brimmed black hats and thick, long coats, as they tried to block traffic. Squads of Israeli riot and mounted police kept the crowds back and sprayed them with water cannons, enabling secular Jews to drive defiantly along Bar-Ilan in direct challenge. The tension burst for one Orthodox man when a small red car packed with secular Jews passed by, its passengers making provocative hand gestures. He leaned down to stare at them, his traditional long locks of hair dangling like rope from his ears: "Anti-Semites!" he howled, as the car sped away. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up one-third of Jerusalem's Jewish community (and 10 percent of Israel's Jewish population) and want to close roads passing through their neighborhoods on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. They have been emboldened by the election victory of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two months ago. Their votes helped clinch his win, so they are pushing their agenda - one that would impose a stricter religious regime on Israel's largely secular population. But secular Jews are trying to counter the growing influence of the religious right, and say Bar-Ilan is worth fighting for. If the ultra-Orthodox win here, they say, and succeed in closing the street, then it will mark the first step backward on a path toward transforming life in Jerusalem. Israel's "culture war" is heating up, both sides agree, with the din of battle heralding the reemergence of an internal conflict that has simmered in Israel for decades. "This gives the bad impression to the world - the wrong impression - that Jews are fighting Jews," says one young ultra-Orthodox man on the street, between bursts from a water cannon. "Even though we call them Nazis, we don't mean it. We are all one," he continues. "If there were a war {with an Arab state} we would all be together. This is not that kind of hatred." Secular concerns that Jerusalem's growing Orthodox community wants to impose a strict Jewish law on everyone are wrong, he said. "We just want our own rights. Can't they respect that?" Other Orthodox Jews, known as haredim, warned him not to speak to an outsider but then reinforced his comments. Secular-religious divide "They are not Jews," says another man, pointing a finger at the vehicles moving along the road, protected by a lines of security forces. "Why do they have their horses? They don't need water guns and riot police - we're not going to kill anyone." "We are like two different people," admits another man. That difference has grown since Mr. Netanyahu's victory. The new prime minister has pieced together a Cabinet that requires the consent of right-wing religious parties to govern. He must tread carefully between issues of religion and personal freedom. The handling of the protests along Bar-Ilan is seen as a gauge for future changes. The election exposed Israel's increasing polarization between those who demand that Israel remain a Jewish state, and those who want Israel to include all those who live here - Arabs also - as citizens of a secular state. As the number of Orthodox Jews increased in Jerusalem, so too has the exodus of secular Israelis from the Holy City to Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, which is now 80 percent secular. On the secular front line of the "culture war" is Ornan Yekutieli, Jerusalem's councilor for the militantly secular Meretz party. Some say he provoked the haredim at Bar-Ilan by organizing convoys to drive along the street during protests and reportedly has received death threats.

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