Religious vs. Secular / A Mideast Spectacle of a Different Kind

This battle has all the ingredients of a true Mideast saga - drama, violence, religion and suspense.

Besides the best-selling Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are other conflicts Israel can be very proud of. One is the secular-Orthodox saga; it's got all the ingredients of a true Mideast spectacle - drama, violence, religion and suspense.

The secular versus Orthodox saga has been on a constant low flame for decades. There's the usual protest against something opening on Shabbat, or rock throwing in Mea Shearim, or a Knesset member from the left whining about how much money yeshivas get, or Haredim protesting against new roads because they find ancient Jewish remains at the site. But every few years it seems tensions run on a slightly higher flame.

Over the past 20 years, I can remember two such periods. The first was when I was in high school and again later in the army, during the large scale protests against religious coersion (in which I proudly took part). These occured during the growth in power of the religious parties in coalition governments, mainly Shas. 'Twas the days of Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid from the leftwing Meretz, and Shas leader Rabbi Yaakov Peretz and his 20-something charismatic deputy Aryeh Deri from the Orthodox. (Deri went on to lead the party and go to jail for corruption. This week he announced he's making his political comeback.)

I think the thing I remember most from those days is the disaster in which 22 kids lost their lives after their bus was hit by a train. Peretz claimed it was because of faulty mezuzahs in their school and that people in Petah Tikva weren't keeping Shabbat. Needless to say, the reception to these comments was not positive.

The second period I remember is when avowedly secular journalist Yosef "Tommy" Lapid took over Shinui, and led the party to an amazing 15-seat win in the 2003 Knesset elections, following a clearly anti-religious campaign.

Back then, the main argument was around attempts to draft the Orthodox into the army. Lately, I have been feeling we're embarking on period #3, and another flare-up is lurking. In the past three months or so there have been a number of events that have brought Orthodox and secular to face off out on the streets:

Karta parking lot: The Jerusalem courts last month ordered the Shabbat opening of this lot near the Old City. The city claims that the police urged them to do so, in order to avoid double parking on nearby streets by the many people who visit the Old City on Shabbat, which poses a safety hazard. Ultra-Orthodox groups, led by the Eda Haredit, claimed this is a desecration of Shabbat and launched violent protests. There have been reports that not all the ultra-Orthodox agree with the Eda Haredit protests, and that there is a lot of internal politicking going on behind the scenes, which is triggering events.

Kiryat Yovel: It's the typical "There goes the neighborhood" scenario. Kiryat Yovel, in the south-west part of Jerusalem, has long been a secular-traditional neighborhood. Veteran secular residents are complaining that synagogues are being opened illegally and that the Haredim are "taking over". The main battle is now concentrated around two apartment buildings on Stern Street, former student dorms for the Hebrew University, that are up for sale. One secular group is bidding against seven Haredi groups.

Ramat Aviv: Another "There goes the neighborhood" tale. This time Haredim are buying up flats in north Tel Aviv, the heart of the "secular city." The veterans won't stand for it, while the "intruders" couldn't care less what they think. But the debate here turned ugly after an op-ed by Gideon Levy entitled "Anti-Semitism is rearing its head in Tel Aviv." You can guess what that one was about.

Starving child: An ultra-Orthodox woman was arrested this week for allegedly starving her 3-year-old son. Haredim held violent protests on Wednesday against the arrest, claiming that Haredi mothers are the victims of baseless allegations. As a result of the protests, Barkat took a pretty drastic step and decided to halt all municipal services to the Orthodox neighborhoods of Geula and Mea Shearim, fearing for the safety of municpal employees.

Still, despite these flashpoints, it's not exactly the same as those two earlier periods. First, there's no Meretz and there's no Shinui leading a secular campaign. In fact, it seems politicians from the Knesset have largely decided to steer away from these flare-ups, reluctant to pour oil on the flames or endanger their own alliances.

Second, the issues themselves are very local, there's no IDF draft law or religious coersion to campaign against on a national scale. So, on the whole, it's too early to tell if this will develop into something bigger. I certainly hope it doesn't.

The flames are still low, but I don't know. Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here?

Ami Kaufman is a former Haaretz editor. This piece originally appeared in his blog, Half and Half.