Page last updated at 03:38 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 04:38 UK

Israeli tempers rise over bread

By Jon Brain
BBC News, Jerusalem

Bagel shop in Old Jaffa.
Leavened food is forbidden during the week-long Passover holiday

Could a government fall because of a row over a loaf of bread?

At a time when the outside world is looking on hopefully as Israel and the Palestinians attempt to achieve a lasting Middle East peace settlement, some Israelis have other concerns on their mind.

A court in Jerusalem has caused outrage among the country's orthodox Jewish community by making a controversial ruling on the sale of leavened bread.

It has overturned the convictions of restaurants and cafes which were fined last year for selling the bread during Passover, one of the most important weeks in the Jewish calendar.

The law bans the public display of leavened bread (ie bread made from dough which has been allowed to rise) during Passover.

"The court's ruling points a gun to the head of the Jewish people
Yitzhak Cohen
Minister of Religious Services.

However, Judge Tamar Bar Asher-Zaban has now ruled that restaurants are not ''public places'' and therefore not subject to this particular law.

Israel's ultra-orthodox Shas party - part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's ruling coalition - is so incensed that it has even been muttering threats about triggering a political crisis by walking out of the government unless Israel's parliament, the Knesset, appeals against the Judge's decision.

"The court's ruling points a gun to the head of the Jewish people," said Yitzhak Cohen, the Shas member who is the administration's minister of religious services.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around a fire as they burn leavened items in Jerusalem.
Ceremonies are held to burn leavened bread ahead of Passover

Shahar Levay, the owner of Restobar, one of the businesses which have been reprieved, not surprisingly takes a very different view.

He told the BBC he was dismayed by the original decision to prosecute him.

"It's a bad thing for everyone," he said.

"In a way it's a clash of civilisations... a cultural battle between Orthodox and secular. The religious Jews aren't prepared to accept that some people live their lives in a way that's different from them."

'Interfering judge'

But the Orthodox community argues that if Jewish laws cannot be applied in the nation which was created for the Jews, then the nation itself is undermined.

They're objecting because, in their view, the judge has intervened in religious law and they feel that should be their territory
Menachem Friedman
Bar-Ilan University

The professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University, Menachem Friedman, says tensions between religious and secular Jews have existed since the state of Israel was established 60 years ago.

He believes what has particularly angered the Orthodox leaders over the bread issue is their perception that Judge Asher-Zaban has strayed into an area she has no right to have entered.

"For them this is very symbolic," he says.

"They're objecting because, in their view, the judge has intervened in religious law and they feel that should be their territory."

However, Professor Friedman thinks the Shas Party will stay in the government to fight this battle rather than giving up any influence by leaving.

The issue is not likely to disappear from the political agenda just yet.

This year's Passover begins on 19 April.

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