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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

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.

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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.

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"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.

'Jewish Ayatollahs'

For him, the Orthodox are bent on reversing a decade-long trend of easing religious law in the Holy City. "The face of this country is Jerusalem," he said. "Do we want a rational, modern, cultural city of the 20th Century looking forward to the 21st Century and the Western world; or do we want to change to medieval ways, to counterculture that is a step toward Tehran?"

Since Netanyahu became prime minister, ultra-Orthodox leaders - whom the leftist Labor Party labeled "Jewish Ayatollahs" during the campaign - have circulated a list of demands that conform with their goal that Israel should be subject to Jewish law.

It includes the abolition of sales of pork, the closing of certain roads, restaurants, and cinemas on the Sabbath (from Friday at sunset through Saturday), and a reversal of recent Supreme Court decisions that recognize non-Orthodox conversions and allow non-Orthodox Jews to sit on local religious councils.

Secular Jews fear that such laws will be imposed on them. After the election, one Tel Aviv restaurant held a "last supper" for guests before - it half-joked - it was to be forced to make its kitchen kosher.

"There's a limit to how far you can push people," says Mr. Yekutieli. "The ultra-Orthodox will vote peace or war for Netanyahu, but the price will be paid in our civil rights."

An example of how "medieval" the ultra-Orthodox are, he says, is to look at the inappropriateness of their heavy, traditional black coats in the Mideast heat: "What was good for Poland in the 1700's is different from the Israeli summer today," he says.

Though Orthodox leaders deny that they want to impose their laws on the less observant, the feeling of mistrust is mutual.

Religious or secular state?

"The secular, left-wing forces in Israel need to make the religious people understand that the secular are not antireligious, but are against religious coercion," says Gershon Baskin, director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem. Even so, he takes issue with claims by Orthodox that their mission is limited.

"It's not letting us alone. They want religious legislation to overturn laws that protect the rights of the individual," he says. "They want to prevent Israel from becoming a secular state."

The result, analysts say, has been a cultural revolution that took root because the previous Labor government - in pursuit of peace with Palestinians and Arab neighbors - neglected the traditional religious sensibilities of many Israeli Jews.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party increased its seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from 16 to 23, making it the third-largest party and a new power-broker. The party and smaller ultra-Orthodox allies "remind Mr. Netanyahu every day" that his rule hinges on their support, one analyst says.

The street battles at Bar-Ilan, replete with stone-throwing and a barrage of dirty diapers, are proving to be an early test of Netanyahu's coalition.

The violence sparked Rabbi Abraham Ravitz, a member of the Knesset from United Torah Judaism, a conservative religious party, to threaten a vote of no-confidence against the government and call for the sacking of the chief of police for allowing his forces to carry out a "pogrom" - the word used for the persecution and killing of Jews in Europe and Russia over the centuries - against the ultra-Orthodox .

"They shouldn't be afraid of us," he says. "We're not going to make a second Iran in the Middle East."

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