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Behind the Headlines: Non-orthodox Israelis Fear Rising Conflict with Haredim

Will the religious parties’ strong showing in the May 29 national elections spell the end to religious tolerance in Israel?

That’s the fear of many Israelis, who regard the controversy about the capital’s Bar Ilan Street as the first salvo in an all-out war between the religious and secular.

Deeply concerned that a government decision to close the road on Shabbat will set a precedent for closing down additional roads, as well as places of entertainment now open on Shabbat, non-Orthodox Israelis are already anticipating other religious-secular standoffs.

Although such standoffs have been going on for years, especially in the country’s holiest city, Jerusalem, “the difference is that the ultra-Orthodox are now in a position to impose their beliefs on others,” says Ornan Yekutieli, a vocal secularist who heads the left-wing Meretz faction in the Jerusalem municipality.

Noting that dozens of restaurants, bars and discos now operate in the capital on Shabbat, Yekutieli says that “in recent years we’ve been very successful in our bid to make Jerusalem a modern city that attracts both religious and secular.”

“Now the struggle begins over whether the city can continue to be home to a mix of Jewish communities,” Yekutieli adds.

Asserting that “we have a prime minister who owes his premiership to the ultra- Orthodox,” Yekutieli believes that “Netanyahu will bend over backwards to accommodate them. Unfortunately, the price will be our civil rights. Bar Ilan street is just the beginning.”

For two consecutive weekends in mid-July, the street was the site of confrontations among the local haredi community, which wants the street shut down on Shabbat and religious holidays, and secular Jews, who want to keep the street open to traffic seven days a week, and police attempting to keep order.

On more than one occasion, the confrontations turned violent, with haredim throwing rocks and garbage at the police and passing cars, and with the police turning water cannons on the Orthodox protesters.

This past weekend, there was also a mass demonstration by the haredim, or fervently Orthodox community, but it was not marked by the violence of the two previous weeks.

Although Kosriel Shemtov, a Lubavitch rabbi living in the capital, acknowledges that support from the religious community “did help Netanyahu, and he might feel some gratitude, I personally don’t see [religious demands on] Bar Ilan Street as proof we’re cashing in.”

Shemtov points out that “when it comes to funding, government officials from all parties look at the interests of their constituents, and Meretz has been no exception.”

“It’s only natural that haredi Knesset members will try to help their constituents,” Shemtov says.

Although Shemtov rejects Yekutieli’s claim that the religious community’s newfound political clout will lead to an erosion of the religious status quo, he does agree that “there is no place for violence, regardless of the issue.”

Looking back on the largely peaceful demonstration on Bar Ilan Street this past Shabbat, Shemtov says, “We had 150,000 people come out and there was virtually no violence. On the whole, the haredi community is very tolerant, very responsible.

“The few rock-throwers don’t represent the majority and frankly, they give us all a bad name.”

That this demonstration was much more restrained than the previous Bar Ilan rallies was lost on many non-Orthodox Israelis as television camera crews showed a group of black-hatted men setting a garbage bin ablaze and placing it in the center of the street just as it was to be opened for post-Shabbat traffic.

In a much more serious incident, a group of haredim recently attacked a secular graduate student after she parked her car — on a weekday — near the fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Geulah in Jerusalem.

Although the woman, who was wearing a summer dress, escaped with only minor injuries, her car was badly damaged in the attack.

The local media has also been quick to report alleged attempts at religious coercion by the haredim in the two months since the elections.

In the towns of Hadera and Kiryat Malachi, female municipal workers have been ordered to dress modestly, in accordance with Jewish law.

In Jerusalem, a supermarket owned by the huge Supersol chain now forbids “immodestly dressed” women — defined as those not wearing a below-the-knee dress or skirt — from entering the store.

The store, which is located in an industrial area bordering both religious and non-religious neighborhoods, does provide a skirtlike coverup for those who seek it.

Asked whether the supermarket’s policy, as well as the attack on the graduate student, signal the erosion of religious freedoms in Jerusalem, a municipal spokeswoman says, “Absolutely not. The religious status quo in Jerusalem remains the status quo.

“The attack on the woman was an isolated incident and the police handled it. The law remains unchanged.”

As for the supermarket, she adds, “as far as I know, the market is in a religious neighborhood and besides, it is a private enterprise and can set its own standards. The status quo remains in effect.”

Orit Sulitzeanu, spokeswoman of the Israel Women’s Network, is not as sure.

“There is a law that supervises the sale of goods that mandates that they cannot set unreasonable conditions,” she says. “We consider these conditions unreasonable.”

While the network considers filing an official complaint against the market in question, it is distributing a petition asking people to boycott all Supersol stores if the management does not abandon its dress code.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, fears that the implementation of dress codes is just one symptom of what he terms “the government’s new parameters.”

Referring to an agreement reached among the Likud Party and its coalition members when the government was formed in June, Sacks says, “the new government has promised legislation that will reverse any Supreme Court rulings that grant legitimacy to the Reform and Conservative movements.”

At risk, he says, are recent Supreme Court decisions paving the way for non- Orthodox conversions and burials in Israel, as well as for the participation of non-Orthodox representatives on local religious councils.

“Netanyahu can stand before the American Jewish community and say he is committed to the religious status quo, but what is the status quo?” Sacks says.

“To the haredim, maintaining the status quo means ensuring that the [Chief] Rabbinate can tell a couple that it will not convert the baby they adopted until the father can prove he goes to shul and the mother covers her hair and doesn’t wear pants.

“It means not acknowledging that more than 20 Israelis, who went abroad for conversions, are Jews. It means prohibiting Reform and Conservative Jews from praying as a group at the Western Wall.”

Although such legislation has yet to be introduced in the Knesset — and there is no guarantee that laws limiting religious pluralism would pass — Reform and Conservative leaders say they are gearing up for battle.

Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, vows to fight any attempt to turn back the clock on religious matters.

“From the civil rights movement in the U.S., we’ve learned that bureaucracies and monopolies will not endorse pluralism or civil rights unless they are forced to do so by legislation,” says Regev.

“I anticipate spending a lot of time in court,” he adds.

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