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Jerusalem's `Sabbath wars' highlight deep division in Israeli society. Ultraorthodox protest movie showings, others chafe at religious laws

Jerusalem is bracing for another weekend of large-scale protests by ultraorthodox Jews against Friday-night movie showing, which they consider a desecration of the Sabbath. The weekly ``Sabbath wars,'' now in their second month, have escalated in recent weekends with thousands of black-garbed demonstrators confronting ranks of mounted riot police, who have used tear gas and water cannons to break up the crowds. This weekend, leaders of the ultraorthodox community have called for mass prayer meetings at 30 locations in the city.

The ultraorthodox are outraged by the efforts of secular Jerusalem residents to organize film showings in the city. The theaters normally shut down from sunset Friday until Saturday night.

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Nonreligious residents of the city who feel increasingly hemmed in by their their city's ``blue laws'' - which forbid movie showings or opening of caf'es on Saturdays - have in recent weeks arranged screenings at three theaters and other locations in the city in defiance of the municipal by-laws.

The lack of night life on the short weekends (Sunday is a workday in Israel) has driven many young, nonreligious, Jerusalem residents to leave the city Friday evening and head for the theaters, restaurants, and discotheques that do a booming business in Tel Aviv, less than an hour's drive away.

At the height of the tension last month, Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's mayor, flagged down cars on the highway leading out of the city on Friday night in an attempt to persuade his constituents to stay in Jerusalem.

Some young nonreligious couples have even moved out of Jerusalem to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. They complain that they felt cramped by the increasing influence of the growing ultraorthodox community, now a third of the city's Jewish population of 330,000.

Jerusalem's ultraorthodox community, which is heavily represented on the city council, has succeeded in banning car traffic through religious neighborhoods on the Sabbath and has exerted heavy political pressure to stop construction of a new soccer stadium and swimming pool.

Last year, groups of ultraorthodox men spray-painted and burned down bus stop shelters carrying bathing suit advertisements showing skimpily clad women.

The battle between nonreligious and ultraorthodox residents over the character of their city reflects the broader debate in Israel over its nature as a Jewish state.

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While there is a broad consensus that the cultural aspects of Jewish religion should be maintained in the country's public life, there is sharp disagreement on whether religious observance can be imposed by one segment of the population on another.

There is no official separation of church and state in Israel, and informal understandings have been reached on where religious dictates are to be incorporated into Israel's public life. For example, under these arrangements - which govern what is called the religious ``status quo'' - Saturday is observed as the official day of rest; Israel's national airline, El Al, does not fly on the Jewish Sabbath; and marriages and divorces must be arranged through rabbinical courts.

Observers say the weekly clashes in Jerusalem are signaling the beginning of the end of the ``status quo'' arrangements. For nonreligious Israelis, the battle is against religious coercion.

``In no historic city in the West, except the Vatican, are there such restrictions on the lives of local residents,'' wrote columnist Gideon Samet in Israel's leading daily Haaretz. ``A fanatic, hate-filled group is demanding that the capital be choked for the sake of the Sabbath, as it sees it.''

The ultraorthodox, who view the struggle as a fight to preserve what they see as Jerusalem's holy character, have replied with equal vehemence in wall posters hung in their neighborhoods this week.

One of them reads: ``The destroyers are continuing to tear down the wall of the Sabbath and are opening houses of abomination and filthy theaters at the height of our holy Sabbath. ... We must carry on fearlessly with our holy campaign until the honour of the Sabbath is restored.''

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