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EDITIONS
Israel elections Sunday, 4 June, 2000, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
A nation divided
The conflict between the orthodox and secular is long-standing
More than 50 years after the creation of Israel, the Jewish state is a nation divided.

Quite apart from differences over the peace process or economic policy, religion is one of the key fault lines threatening to split Israeli society in two.

A March 1999 survey found that 62% believed the secular-religious divide to be Israel's most serious problem, compared to only 18% saying the conflict between Left and Right over the peace process.

The widening gap between Orthodox and secular Israelis illustrates the difference of opinion on Israeli identity.

What is Israel? A Zionist state, a Jewish state, an ethnic state, a liberal democracy based on citizenship or a mix of all these elements?

Bridging the gap

The early Zionists believed "Jewish" described a national identity.

In 1948, the then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion signed the "religious status quo" agreement.

It required that the Sabbath (Saturday) and Kashrut (Jewish dietary law) be officially observed in the state.

Civil marriages were not allowed and the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) were provided with an independent educational system.

But Israel's population has grown and changed.

While Orthodox Jews make up 20% to 30% of the population, secular Jews and ethnically Russian and Ethiopian Jews find the laws a burden on their daily life.

One example of the divide is the conflict over Drugstore 2000, a 24-hour chemist in the centre of Jerusalem.

Almost every Saturday, there is some sort of protest outside the store. (Last year, a member of the left-wing Meretz party had a row with police who accused him of staging an unauthorised protest outside the store because he was wearing a party baseball cap.)

The Orthodox Jews want it closed on the Sabbath. Secular Jews say that a modern state needs to have 24-hour access to medicine.

"Tolerance is breaking apart especially in Jerusalem," says Daphne Vardi, an Israeli journalist for the Ma'ariv daily newspaper.

"Secular Jews are bitter because they feel like their daily lives are being impeded. But the extreme religious people also are angry. They feel like people, even in Israel, are out to get them."

Disagreement between religious and secular Jews is also being battled in the Israeli courts.

In December 1998, Israel's supreme court made sweeping reforms that reduced Orthodox privilege.

The court ended a blanket exemption for Orthodox Jews for military service. It also allowed farms to operate on the Sabbath and mandated that modern Reform and Conservative Jews be integrated into the powerful local religious councils, once the preserve of the orthodox.

The result: protests erupted on the streets of Jerusalem.

On 14 February 1999, about 200,000 orthodox Jews held a mass rally in Jerusalem. Among their slogans were: "Stop the incitement of the supreme court" and "The supreme court represents the elite."

In true Israeli style, the protest sparked a counter rally by secular groups.

Radical change however is not on the horizon. According to Mordy Kreitman, a political correspondent for Israel's most popular newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, the Orthodox have little to fear because of their political power.

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The BBC's Guto Harri reports on the growing resentment of Ultra-Orthodox power
Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.


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