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24 May, 2010 03:42

Religious rifts continue to plague Israel

For generations Jews have come to touch the stones of the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall. But over the years the area has become increasingly dangerous for women.

They can only pray in an area one fifth the size of the men’s and in recent months have been attacked with chairs, rocks and vegetables, called derogatory names and even dragged along the ground.

But it’s not some crazed militant group that’s behind the violence – it’s religious Orthodox men.

Anat Hoffman, founding member of “Women of the Wall”, has had enough – just last week a friend of hers was rushed to hospital after being hit with chair while she was praying.

“You know this is a religious area but Israel is a secular democracy – secular Jewish democracy. And we have to start fighting where the territory is ripe – the first buses that were segregated were to and from the wall. So, coming here and fighting here is very kosher – very legitimate – very exciting,” she told RT.

The women come to the stones of the ancient temple compound and wrap themselves in religious Jewish prayer shawls, read from the holy book, and raise their voices like men
It infuriates many of the Orthodox Jews who say it’s against Judaism.

Increasing numbers of Jews are also taking to the streets, fearing the rise in Jewish religious radicalism mirrors what’s happening in fundamentalist Muslim countries. They worry about the future democracy of their country.

Rabbi Uri Regev has set up an organization to challenge the growing power of the ultra Orthodox parties who sit in the Israeli government.

He says while most Israelis still favor freedom, equality and pluralism – it’s only a small majority.

“That percentage is going to change if we wait much longer – at this point if we assert the interests of the state, the public, democracy and Israel’s own founding vision we can still reverse that tide.”

Miriam Zalkind was raised in an Orthodox family. But when she turned seventeen she decided to become secular and joined a university feminist group that campaigns for equal rights for women in the religious community.

She’s been harassed more than once by religious men for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. She says part of the problem is changing not just the men’s behavior – but the mindset of religious women.

“We are trying all the time but the problem is that they are a very closed community and they are very controlled by the men. So, they are not supposed to think for themselves or to have any ideas or decide for themselves. They agree with this way of thinking so it is very hard to change it,” she stressed.

Many of the most extreme Jews live in settlements across the West Bank.

Noam Federman is in one of the most right wing of them – Kiryat Arba. It’s next to the city of Hebron where the Hebrew patriarchs are buried.

Noah’s convinced that, soon, religious Jews will outnumber secular Israelis and Arabs.

“I already have ten children – my friends they all have 8,9,11,12,15 – this is the average. Now the leftists are the rulers of the country today, but they do not have a future, they do not have anything here and this is one of the reasons they are fighting us because they don’t have a future.”

But Israeli leaders – at least for now – are distracted from fighting the religious within their ranks and are more focused on the threat from Iran and the Arab world.

Like many Israeli governments before him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs the religious parties to stay in power. He gives into their demands for school subsidies, preventing public transport on the Sabbath and allowing only religious marriages to be performed.

The fear many here have, though, is what demands they’ll put on the table tomorrow.