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Israel Convulsed by Religious Fury as Fundamentalists Push Into Politics

September 06, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

JERUSALEM — Theodore Herzl, father of the Zionist movement, once joked that Israel would not truly be a nation until there were Jewish thieves and prostitutes. By that standard, Herzl's dream has become a reality. In fact, the reality includes something Herzl never dreamed of. Israel now has to cope with an uprising of militant fundamentalist Jews. Ultra-Orthodox zealots polarize the Jewish world just as Islamic militants divide the Muslim world and born-again fundamentalists send shock waves through Christian society. All over the world, religious militancy is rising in political protest.

Could this be what the early Zionists meant when they said that Israel must become a nation like all the others?

The source of contention is, of all things, the movies. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, about 15% of Jerusalem's Jewish population, are demanding that the city enforce a ban on the showing of films on the Jewish Sabbath, even in non-Orthodox areas. Movies are shown on the Sabbath in other parts of Israel but not in the holy city of Jerusalem, where only "cultural events" are allowed on the Sabbath.

Are movies like "Body Heat" and "Little Shop of Horrors" cultural events? Sure they are, say secular Jews, as long as each film is preceded by a lecture.

And so, three weeks ago, Jerusalemites witnessed the spectacle of Israeli police sealing off the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. The police were there to prevent religious zealots from demonstrating at movie theaters outside and to keep secular extremists from provoking trouble inside. There were sounds of glass breaking and horses' hoofs clattering on the pavement. Helmeted police, waiting for angry protesters to start throwing stones, tapped rubber truncheons into their palms. To more than a few observers, the scene was eerily reminiscent of dark days in the European ghettos.

A few days later, some 20,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Western Wall to protest desecration of the Sabbath. Elderly Torah sages, including some who rarely participate in politics or even leave their homes, showed up. One religious newspaper described secular Jews as "a small minority of anti-Semitic goyim, even if they happen to be of the seed of Israel." If religious Jews cannot win by persuasion, one rabbi said, "they will take the law into their own hands."

A week later, they did just that. Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators showed up Saturday at 15 major intersections, where they shouted " Shabbos, Shabbos " at Sabbath violators driving automobiles. The protesters were met by 500 policemen who used tear gas and water cannons filled with green dye against them. "Nazis!" shouted the protesters. "You son of a bitch," said a mounted policeman. "I'm desecrating the Sabbath because of you."

The secular Jews are far from innocent. It was secular activists who provoked a confrontation to challenge the status quo. "The key word is a show of force," said one veteran activist. "We have to teach them a lesson they won't forget. Otherwise, we'll lose not only in Jerusalem, but in all of Israel." Unusually large crowds fill movie theaters on Friday nights.

The conflict has a nasty side. Secular activists ambushed an 11-year-old Orthodox boy and shaved off his side-locks, a sign of piety to religious Jews. Secular Israelis are increasingly using the term "blacks" to refer to ultra-Orthodox Jews, an apparent reference to their traditional costume. But overtones of bigotry and contempt are close to the surface.

There are many things secular Jews resent about the ultra-Orthodox. They resent their ghetto mentality, their refusal to fight in the Israeli army and, most of all, their effort to dominate Jerusalem. A few months ago, after a rash of suspicious bus-shelter fires, ultra-Orthodox Jews won a battle to have "suggestive advertising"--for example, posters showing women in bikinis--banned from the city.

Tel Aviv has become a symbol of secularism and sophistication to Israelis. Large numbers of non-religious Jews have moved there, while others participate in a mass exodus to Tel Aviv every Friday afternoon. Which is fine with the rabbis, one of whom said, "The holy city of Jerusalem must never try to compete with Tel Aviv's cafe-and-disco culture."

What is in danger of collapse is the status quo agreement between Israel's early religious and political leaders. That agreement, made in the 1940s, allows Orthodox authorities to control marriage, education and religious practices. In turn, they accepted the authority, if not the legitimacy, of the Zionist state.

Why, after 40 years of statehood, is religion suddenly becoming an issue? After all, the religious vote is not growing. Only 15% of Israelis describe themselves as "religious," of whom less than 5% are ultra-Orthodox. In fact, the religious vote has splintered over the past decade and is now represented by four different political parties.

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