COVER

THE ‘WAR OF THE JEWS’

ERIC SILVER January 18 1988
COVER

THE ‘WAR OF THE JEWS’

ERIC SILVER January 18 1988

THE ‘WAR OF THE JEWS’

COVER

Veteran Israeli broadcaster Michael Elkins was returning by car to his Jerusalem home one recent Friday night when a bottle crashed through his windshield, spraying him and his passenger with glass. His assailant was not a Palestinian agitator, but one of a group of bearded, black-hatted Orthodox Jews, clearly outraged that he was driving on the sabbath. Later, Elkins said: “What shakes me is that these people are prepared to injure, maim and perhaps kill fellow Jews.” Added Elkins: “The brotherhood of the Jew is being attacked at its very root.”

Such incidents have become almost commonplace in what Israelis generally call “the war of the Jews”—the culture clash between secular and moderately religious Israelis on the one hand and their militant and politically powerful Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox compatriots on the other. When the Jewish state was born after the British pulled out of

Palestine in 1948, the word “God” was not even mentioned in its declaration of independence. Indeed, like most of his generation of Zionist leaders, Israel’s agnostic founding father Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion seemed to believe that religion would never play a major role in the state’s affairs.

Now, however, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox influence is so pervasive that Dedi Zucker, a Knesset (Parliament) member of the left-ofcentre Citizens’ Rights party, recently said, “We Western, liberal people cannot live with it.”

The power of the religious purists affects many aspects of life for Israeli Jews. Only Orthodox rabbis can perform marriages, grant divorces and conduct funerals. Hotel kitchens have to conform to strict religious dietary

rules. On Saturdays and other holy days, the national airline, El AÍ, is grounded—and there is no public transport in much of the country. And in some cities, police seal off whole areas to vehicular traffic to avoid ultraOrthodox violence against motorists on the sabbath.

Parties: The present conflict in the streets, law courts, Knesset and political party headquarters, is partly a result of Israel’s propor3 tional representation § electoral system, which “ causes a proliferation of w minor political parties. 3 That makes it impossi$ ble for either of the 5 main parties —Labour and Likud—to form a government without co-opting one or more of the religious parties. Still, for the first three decades of statehood, the secu-

lar-religious balance held. Then, in 1977, the election of Menachem Begin and his Likud bloc began to tip the scales more heavily in favor of the religious camp. Begin was willing to pay a higher price than Labour to gain and keep his religious coalition partners, and during his six-year reign the government placed restrictions on abortions and autopsies, both anathema to the Orthodox and the ultraOrthodox.

Transplants: As well, the government tightened hospital regulations, making it much more difficult to perform transplant operations, of which many religious purists also disapprove. Meanwhile, military call-up regulations were relaxed, permitting thousands of ultra-Orthodox students—and young women from religious families—to avoid the draft, which applies to all other ablebodied Israelis at 18. And in response to pressure from his coalition partners, Begin increased funding for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries. It was the peak of a religious revival that began with the 1967 Six Day War victory—which many Israelis saw as a miraculous restoration of Israel’s biblical boundaries.

The zealots of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), in their knitted skullcaps and bushy beards, led the drive to settle the occupied territories—especially the West Bank of the River Jordan, which they called by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria. Bloc members see their mission in messianic terms. As Yisrael Medad, editor of the West Bank settlers’ newspaper, Counterpoint, said in an interview with Maclean’s,

“The forthcoming redemption, the coming of the Messianic Age, is only possible if this process of taking the land and holding it is accomplished without shrinking from responsibility.” In their fervor, some members of the bloc even turned to terrorism. In July, 1985, 12 Gush Emunim men were jailed for attempting to kill three West Bank Palestinian mayors with car bombs, and three others received life sentences for machine-gunning three students to death on the campus of Hebron’s Islamic College. Said Motti Lerner, author of a play about Gush Emunim: “If you believe that God is on your side, you can do anything. These people will stop at nothing.”

But in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim—an ultra-Orthodox area protected by thick,

grey limestone walls and barred windows—Jewish fundamentalism takes a different form. There, the haredim, as they call themselves, reject the very existence of the Jewish state, saying that it must await the coming of the Messiah. Said Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, leader of Mea Shearim’s most militant sect: “Zionism and its bastard state are threatening to bring havoc on the Jewish nation by tampering with divine will.”

The fundamentalists of Mea Shearim have set fire to bus shelters hung with swimsuit advertisements, stoned cars on the sabbath, staged violent protests against Friday-night movies in Jerusalem and blocked con-

struction of a stadium in the Holy City to prevent Saturday sports events. Said Hirsch: “When the religious atmosphere of Jerusalem is at stake, we take steps to safeguard its sanctity. When our way of life and our children’s education are being challenged, we take up arms.”

Influx: The ranks of the fundamentalists of both groups have been swollen by a steady influx of religious Jews from abroad. At the same time, the secular population has declined because of its lower birthrate. Still, the nonreligious remain the largest single group. According to generally accepted recent estimates, 45 per cent of Israeli Jews seldom, if ever, attend synagogue.

Another 35 per cent, calling themselves “traditional,” observe many religious customs. The Orthodox represent an estimated 15 per cent of the total, and the ultra-Orthodox haredim number only five per cent.

But the religious purists are beginning to lose ground. The interior ministry, under the control of the ultraOrthodox Shas party, had sought to establish that only Orthodox religious conversions are valid—leaving Reform and Conservative converts ineligible for Israeli citizenship. But in June, 1986, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the ministry to register an immigrant from America, who had been converted by a Reform rabbi, as a Jew on her official identity papers. A Jerusalem court also recently upheld the right of movie theatres to open on Friday nights—and at least eight cinemas are now doing so. Meanwhile, city officials continue to battle Orthodox opposition to the sports stadium. Said Teddy Koliek, mayor of Jerusalem for the past 22 years: “We cannot allow the religious to impose their ways on us.”

Booed: Resentment against the tactics of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox by the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism—to which the majority of North American Jews belong—spilled over onto the proceedings of the 31st World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem last month. At the opening session, some delegates booed one of Israel’s two Orthodox chief rabbis, Avraham Shapiro, when he said that anyone converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi was “not a real Jew.” At a later session, chaired by Ontario Re| form Rabbi Michael Stroh, ArI thur Hertzberg, an influential American Conservative rabbi, described the politics of the Orthodox pressure groups as “madness” and called for a separation of synagogue and state. Ruth Popkin, a Reform Jew and president of Hadassah, a North American Zionist women’s organization, called it “a disgrace” that visiting Jews were attacked for not being Orthodox enough. And when Uzi Cohen, a right-wing Israeli politician, demanded an apology from those who had booed Shapiro, he too was booed. The session degenerated into a brawl as delegates shouted insults and scuffled, and stewards had to be called in to restore order. Another skirmish had been fought in the “war of the Jews.”

ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem