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Jewry's great - and growing - divide

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On one Sabbath earlier this year, this normally calm city of 135,000 people just outside Tel Aviv turned into a battleground. Thousands of religious Jews, with the traditional beards and skullcaps, massed in front of a moviehouse, shouting such things as ''criminals,'' ''dogs, '' ''Nazis,'' and ''violators of the law of God.'' When nonobservant Jews tried to buy tickets, the religious threw rocks at them. An open brawl ensued. Scores were injured.

Week after week such demonstrations have continued. The Orthodox say they will not stop them until the law of God is honored and cinemas and cafes closed on the Sabbath - sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The secular have been just as intransigent.

''It's Jewish Khomeini-ism,'' says Dan Ben Canaan, assistant to Petach Tikva's mayor, Dov Tavori. It was Mr. Tavori, a Labor Party member, who triggered the dispute by trying to end the Sabbath restrictions in town. ''We will not let the religious take the law into their own hand and tell us how we should act.''

The battle between observant Jews and less- or nonobservant Jews is growing sharper throughout Israel. The stakes are immense. The outcome will play a large role in determining not only the future shape of the country's society and democracy, but also its foreign policy. Religious Jews, after all, are leading the settlement drive on the West Bank, and secular Jews, the opposition to it.

The division is also important in the Diaspora, the world Jewish community outside Israel. Diaspora leaders worry whether the American Jewish community can retain its cohesiveness and effectiveness if it is being torn from within. Divisive issues are wide ranging - from whether to accept public funds for religious education to what standards should apply to conversions to the Jewish faith.

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