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Two visions of Israel up for grabs

Campaign for the May 17 election widens the gulf between Israel's

At Drugstore 2000, the wheels of commerce don't stop for the national day of rest, so protesters intend to make them stop.

Every Saturday, ultra-Orthodox Jews gather outside the only minimarket open in Jerusalem and shout "Shabbes!" - Yiddish for Sabbath - at employees and patrons.

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When David Pony opened the store in February, he didn't expect it to be the new cause clbre in the simmering conflict between secular and religious Israelis.

Though hardly bigger than an American 7-Eleven, the store actually qualifies as a supermarket, ultra-Orthodox Jews say - and is therefore prohibited by law from opening from sundown Friday to nightfall on Saturday.

Mr. Pony hasn't yet decided for whom he will vote when he goes to the polls next Monday, but he says that the religious groups' attempts to force him to close down will weigh heavily in his choice.

"We don't go into their neighborhoods and force them to be secular, so why should they come here and force us to live their way?" says Pony, who, although raised in a traditional family, chose to pursue a secular lifestyle. "Business is booming, and Shabbat is our best day of the week."

Wooing votes

There are more than a few Israeli politicians who would like to help Pony decide where to cast his vote. More than any previous election, this race has been punctuated by the campaign rhetoric of parties seeking to wrest power and funds from the hands of religious fundamentalists, who have enjoyed increasing influence since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election three years ago.

While previous elections have hinged on issues surrounding the peace process, this time other concerns have taken center stage.

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"Now," says Shinui (Change) Party leader Tommy Lapid, "we're looking into what kind of country we are saving from disaster."

A Tel Aviv University poll shows that most Israelis don't like what they see. Some two-thirds of respondents say that the ever-widening gap between secular and religious Jews is the most important and worrisome division in the country - not peaceniks versus hard-liners, not the ethnic divide of Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and not the rich versus the working class.

Ephraim Yaar, a professor of political sociology who ran the Tel Aviv University study, says the phenomenon of religious-secular tensions has worsened in the past two years. "We have found that most Israelis believe that religious parties, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, have gained too much power, disproportionate to their share in their population, and that they have been able to use it quite wisely to extract concessions," he says.

Riding the wave

But perhaps no one has proven as adept at riding this wave of resentment among nonreligious Israelis as Mr. Lapid, a former newspaper editor and television commentator. Lapid earned a reputation as Israel's Archie Bunker during his weekly appearances on "Popolitica," a round-table current-affairs show forever caught in a 10-way shouting match. Though his very appearance, witty insults, and decidedly un-PC comments do conjure memories of the "All in the Family" curmudgeon, Lapid gave up his own right-wing views long ago in order to support territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

In addition, he's taken up the banner of fighting the haredim - the Hebrew word for trembling, suggesting God-fearing - and reclaiming the state for the secular majority.

"In a normal country," Lapid charges in his colorful, hard-hitting campaign advertisements, "you'd be able to marry whom you want, where you want, however you want." As it stands, there is no civil marriage in Israel, making it impossible for people of different religions to marry, and preventing Jews who don't fit Orthodox requirements from marrying at all.

Lapid says there's no reason the Orthodox should be allowed to stop business and public transport on Shabbat, receive automatic exemptions from mandatory army service, and enjoy heavy subsidies for their schools and large families at the secular taxpayers' expense. "It sounds so silly that it's unbelievable I need to make a campaign issue out of it," Lapid says of the religious establishment's control, in an interview with the Monitor. "We live with the restrictions now imposed on us because we have surrendered to their existence."

That's because David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, placed all matters of religion in the hand of the Orthodox rabbis as a gesture of compromise. But that, says Lapid, was when the ultra-Orthodox amounted to a small "museum piece which Mr. Ben-Gurion wanted to preserve" in the wake of the Holocaust. Since then, many religious sects that once stayed out of state affairs have joined the political fray. Add to that the advent of religious revivalism, the influence of small parties in government, and soaring Orthodox birthrates that far outdo the secular population's rate of increase - and it totals a fear among nonreligious Israelis that they could eventually be outnumbered, or at least overpowered.

Lapid's platform

Lapid says he won't join a government coalition that has any of the Orthodox parties in it. He would take away state funding for religious institutions, which he says should operate primarily from donations, as they do in the United States. Moreover, he wants to cut back on child allowance for parents who have more than a certain number of children, to discourage large Orthodox families, in which eight to 10 children are quite common.

His message seems to have touched a nerve. The Shinui Party is now expected to win at least four seats in the Knesset - enough for Lapid to be appointed as a Cabinet minister.

But others hear a message of hate. The Orthodox have condemned Lapid's campaign as racist incitement - and have even compared his stereotyping of religious people to Nazi propaganda, though Lapid is himself a Holocaust survivor from Yugoslavia.

Jonathan Rosenbloom, a columnist and director of Am Echad, an Orthodox umbrella group, says his teenage son recently pointed to a prison and quipped that his yeshiva - or religious seminary - would soon be moved there.

"I happen to be married to one of those 'subhumans' who works full time and has eight children," says Mr. Rosenbloom. "[We] are often hated for our desire to preserve a culture which is not the dominant popular culture. But there is very little about Tommy Lapid's life which is subject to the decisions of the religious minority."

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