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News Analysis: Societal Schisms Mute Rejoicing As Israel Marks Its 49th Birthday

Israelis marked their Independence Day this week with all the traditional ceremonies and family festivities.

But behind the smoke of barbecues and amid the bustle of countless street parties and official receptions, there was an undercurrent of concern.

Societal schisms — between the Orthodox and secular, between Sephardim and Ashkenazim — that have suddenly resurfaced in recent weeks with ominous vigor seemed to mute the national rejoicing.

At many gatherings celebrating Israel’s 49th birthday Monday, conversations turned to the fervently Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem who threw stones and dirty diapers at policemen standing at attention as the mourning sirens wailed the day before, marking Memorial Day for slain Israeli soldiers.

And the fervently Orthodox Shas Party’s decision to keep its religious schools open Monday — in effect preventing its young people from attending the popular Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities — was seen in secular circles as a new and disturbing stage in religious-secular polarization.

Israelis have long known that deep social problems lie close to the surface and will need to be addressed “when the time comes.”

That time, it was widely hoped, would come after peace was finally achieved between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.

Then, it was believed, Israelis would have the spiritual and physical strength to confront the dangerous divisions within their society that could, if left to fester, yet blow the Zionist homeland apart.

As they celebrated the start of their jubilee year as an independent nation, however, Israelis were facing the sobering realization that the course of history is not so kind.

Peace is not yet at hand. Indeed, the peace process has suffered a major setback over the past year, and the prospects for the future are less rosy than they were a year ago.

But the societal ills are nevertheless bursting onto the national agenda, furnishing grist for the mills of cynical politicians.

The political scandal known as the Bar-On affair, which has bedeviled political life in the country for three months, climaxed just before Passover in an unexpected twist.

The attorney general’s decision only to indict Shas leader Aryeh Deri but not any other political figure involved in the affair — including the prime minister — roused a great cry of ethnic resentment from the country’s Sephardi community.

How much of that protest was spontaneous and how much was coaxed by Deri’s colleagues is not clear.

But it is clear that beyond the initial, instinctive outpouring of resentment, Shas politicians, who look primarily to the Sephardi electorate for support, have deliberately “worked the crowd” to sustain and even heighten the dormant ethnic tensions.

Deri’s speech to some 20,000 followers at a Jerusalem stadium during Passover was viewed by many as a model of calculated ethnic incitement.

He insisted that the decision to indict him now, like an earlier decision to put him on trial for bribery and fraud — a case that is now in its third year — was motivated by a deepseated desire in the “Ashkenazi establishment” to destroy Shas.

“But the more they persecute us, the more we will grow,” Deri assured the crowd.

Deri’s rhetoric, repeated by hundreds of his supporters at meetings across the country in recent weeks, has struck a responsive chord.

Shas activists believe that if elections were held now, their party would gain more than the 10 seats it now holds in the 120-seat Knesset.

Journalists visiting the Shas heartland — development towns and low-income city suburbs — find accusations of discrimination and elitism.

Meanwhile, leaders of the two major parties are pandering, in a backhanded way, to the cynicism exhibited by Shas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor leader hopeful Ehud Barak, among others, proclaim that “the ethnic genie” must be pushed back into the bottle before it can do lasting damage.

Ostensibly, these are bravely spoken words. But they carry the implication that there indeed is an ethnic genie, even though Israel has strived for years to redress the openly discriminatory stage in the state’s early development.

Improvements in social mobility, educational opportunity, “mixed marriages” – – while perhaps not moving fast enough — militate against the perpetuation of ethnic tensions.

But in urging action against the “genie,” Likud and Labor have, in effect, confirmed the Shas leader’s insistence that the genie still lives, ready to emerge and drag Israeli society down.

On religious-secular tensions, which both sides feel are increasing, Deri is a factor as well.

The corruption trial and indictment in the Bar-On affair of Deri, the leader of an Orthodox political party, also are widely seen as reflections of anti- Orthodox prejudices, not just ethnic.

But a far more potent cause of religious-secular frictions — and even violence — is the ongoing dispute in Jerusalem over whether Bar-Ilan Street, which runs through fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, should be open or shut on the Sabbath.

A High Court of Justice decision to keep the street open until a compromise can be negotiated has done little to ease the conflict.

For both sides, this fight has come to symbolize a profound clash in Israeli society over the future character of the capital city and, ultimately, of the nation as a whole.

Israel’s secular majority is well aware of the shifting demographics in Jerusalem, the result of rapid Orthodox population growth. The non-Orthodox fear — perhaps irrationally — a wave of fundamentalism sweeping other Israeli cities, too.

Thus, an attempt by an Orthodox developer to keep his new shopping mall in secular Ramat Aviv closed on Shabbat has, like Bar-Ilan Street, taken on national and even historic import.

Meanwhile, another area of religious-secular conflict has raised a veritable firestorm between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The new “Who is a Jew” controversy focuses on Orthodox efforts to cement in legislation a long-standing ban on recognizing non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

While Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States are in an uproar over the issue, secular Israelis, on the whole, are less exercised about it.

Yet, the presence here of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish provides the conversion issue with an immediacy for Israelis that it has lacked in the past.

For the time being, the issue is on hold as government officials seek to negotiate a solution amicable to both sides.

Resolving any or all of these deep conflicts in Israeli society now appears to be the biggest challenge to achieving “shalom bayit” by the 50th anniversary of Israeli statehood.

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