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20 Aug, 2009 09:38

Religious vs secular: standoff heats up in Israel

Tension is rising in Israel as thousands of secular residents leave Jerusalem each year, saying ultra-religious Jews try to impose rigid beliefs – but the religious community is being torn by disagreements too.

Videotape evidence displays a group of men breaking into a synagogue and pushing the Rabbi to the floor. They kick him down the stairs, and when he tries to run, they grab him, handcuff him, and then carry on beating him for another 40 minutes.

Rabbi Mordechai Osher says he knows the men who attacked him. Like him, they’re ultra-religious Jews who he says are trying to intimidate him into moving his congregation.

“I am surprised this is happening but people will always act in a way they think is right, so maybe I am not so surprised. I hope my experience is a lesson for people – that behaving in this way is not the right choice,” says Rabbi Osher.

But this is not only within the religious community that tensions are running high. Scenes like that are becoming more and more common in the streets of Jerusalem, increasing the anger and the divide between the religious and the secular.

Some religious neighborhoods even warn women who are dressed immodestly not to enter. If the woman’s arms are not covered or if she is wearing trousers, she can well have people throwing stones or eggs at her.

For Eyal Akerman, it’s been a personal struggle He was born into a religious family and his father is a leading Rabbi who feels betrayed his son is not following in his footsteps.

“They are making up rules everyday. They want you to be like everybody else. They talk the same, they are like a cult,” Eyal says.

But Nir Pereg, who heads an organization called “Forum for a Free Jerusalem”, is hitting back. Each time religious Jews take to the streets, he mobilizes the secular community who make up the majority in the city.

“Now I think they are more extreme, firstly because of the media, it’s easier now to make a big impact. And the second thing, it’s because they lost the last elections,” Nir Pereg says. “We had an ultra-Orthodox mayor until six or seven months ago, and they lost to a non-Orthodox mayor. And they still have to show us and the entire Israeli society who is the boss here.”

But Rabbi Avraham Sutton sees things differently. He says there's no such thing as religious and secular Jews because they all share the same history, and the divide is being created by powerful political groups who have their own interests.

“There are very powerful events unfolding on the planet and therefore anybody who has any sensitivity to this, who wants to hear a deeper version of it, needs to turn to the Torah, to the prophets,” Rabbi Sutton believes. “Whereas in Israel the secular is again an agenda directed by European and American interests to uproot the Jewish people from their heritage, to dissociate the Jewish youth from any historical context.”