News Analysis: Latest Jewish Violence Sharpens Divide Between Orthodox, Secular
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News Analysis: Latest Jewish Violence Sharpens Divide Between Orthodox, Secular

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Support for the young Orthodox soldier who last week fired indiscriminately at Palestinians in Hebron last week has once again sharpened the divide between the Orthodox and secular segments of Israeli society.

While the debate is less strident than after the November 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, comparisons are inevitably being made between Noam Friedman’s act and Yigal Amir’s attack on the prime minister.

Some observers believe that the Friedman incident — in which he indiscriminately shot seven Palestinians on Jan. 1 in the market area of Hebron — is having an even deeper impact, in part because the political drama surrounding Rabin’s slaying blurred some of the special distinction of the Orthodox-secular divide.

Friedman, 22, of Ma’aleh Adumim, which is outside Jerusalem, did not serve in Hebron, but was in an administrative unit.

A religious Jew, Friedman said he felt compelled to stop the Hebron redeployment from being carried out.

Reports that Friedman had suffered from psychological problems in the years before his compulsory army service also sparked debate over why he was drafted and issued a weapon.

A Petach Tikva court last week extended Friedman’s detention by 15 days.

Support for Friedman within the Orthodox-Zionist yeshiva movement was reported Sunday by Meimad, a moderate Orthodox movement allied with the Labor-led, largely secularist opposition.

Meimad declined to cite details, but said in a statement that it was aware of such support in several yeshiva high schools, most of which are affiliated to the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Bnei Akiva is attached to the National Religious Party, a member of the conservative governing coalition.

“There are pretty broad margins that support Baruch Goldstein,” who carried out the February 1994 Hebron massacre, and who also support Friedman, Meimad said. Twenty-nine Palestinians died after Goldstein opened fire in a Hebron mosque.

“There is a very serious problem indeed in the Orthodox educational system,” the Meimad statement said. “Many pupils do not understand the rules of play in a democracy. They do not understand the danger to Israel’s democracy.”

Meimad called for an “emergency convention” of Orthodox educators to attempt to remedy the situation.

The NRP, in reaction, blasted Meimad as “irresponsible” and accused it of deepening the divide by tarring the entire Orthodox-Zionist community with the sins of one man.

Knesset member Avner Shaki of the NRP said he was “aghast” that Meimad would criticize the Orthodox-Zionist educational system, which he said was the finest product of Israeli Orthodoxy.

Friedman studied at a yeshiva high school in Jerusalem and later at the Merkaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva, considered the seedbed of Orthodox-Zionist theology of a politically extreme kind.

Friedman was removed from the yeshiva after nine months and underwent some psychiatric care.

This aspect of his record was cited by segments of the Orthodox-Zionist camp as evidence of his psychological imbalance. They described Friedman as having diminished moral responsibility, adding that he was therefore in no way typical of the educational institutions that he attended.

But Friedman’s record can also be regarded as corroborating the fears outside the Orthodox-Zionist camp that the education provided there can turn out fanatical killers.

Friedman is plainly the product of a moderate, unfanatical family. His mother and grandmother, in several recent interviews in the Israeli media expressing regret over the incident, have convinced the public here that he did not absorb violent extremism at home.

His extremist political outlook instead appears to have been shaped to a great extent by his educational environment.

Critics of the Orthodox-Zionist camp point to the similarities between the educational backgrounds of Amir and Friedman.

Meanwhile, professors of education from the country’s universities joined this week in a unanimous call to Zevulun Hammer, the NRP minister who heads the Education Ministry, to implement without further delay two milestone reports on the state education system: the Shenhar Report on teaching Judaic studies in state schools and the Kremnitzer Report on teaching democracy and citizenship.

In their letter to the minister, the professors allude obliquely to the deepening divide in Israeli society and urge that the prompt implementation of the two reports would help teachers meet the challenges for overcoming that divide.

The Shenhar Report, drawn up more than two years ago by a committee headed by Haifa University’s Aliza Shenhar, who is now ambassador to Russia, called for a more pluralistic approach to the teaching of Judaism in the state schools.

Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor of law at the Hebrew University, recommended more emphasis on citizenship throughout the country’s school curricula.

Some political observers are linking the debate over the direction of religious education to renewed speculation about the possible emergence of a national unity government.

They feel that heightened fears of further acts of religious extremism within the Orthodox-Zionist camp may strengthen support within the Likud and Labor parties for a grand coalition in which, presumably, the NRP would have no part.

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