Peres Asks Israelis to End Religious Violence : Pledges Crackdown on Both Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Extremists to Halt Wave of Attacks
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, warning that “the soul of the state” is being torn by mounting civil strife, appealed Monday to religious and secular Jews to end their attacks upon each other and settle their differences through peaceful dialogue.
Peres, who has been sharply criticized by secular politicians for not intervening sooner, told the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, that the government “will not hesitate to use all the means which the law places at its disposal” to crack down on extremists responsible for the recent wave of violence between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Like Guerrilla Warfare
There has always been tension between the extreme Orthodox Jews and the secular majority, but in the last several weeks, the situation has degenerated into what amounts to guerrilla warfare between extremists on both sides.
In just the last week, a synagogue has been burned and another has been daubed with swastikas, the symbol of Nazi Germany, both acts presumably committed by secularists. An ultra-Orthodox seminary was vandalized, the offices of a secular political party were ransacked and burned and several politicians critical of ultra-Orthodox extremists have received death threats. Someone has scrawled on the wall of a building: “Run Over Every Ultra-Orthodox Man--a War Has Just Begun.”
No one has been killed in this spate of violence, but the depth of the mistrust and the hatred it has revealed have shocked Israel. On Monday, a column in the newspaper Davar referred to “the first shots in a potential civil war in the near future.”
Speaking on Israel radio shortly before Peres addressed a special Knesset debate on the conflict, President Chaim Herzog likened the synagogue attacks to “domestic anti-Semitism” and called the violence “a disgrace to the state of Israel.”
The conflict was ignited by an ultra-Orthodox campaign of vandalism against public bus shelters that display posters advertising women’s swim wear and other pictures that ultra-Orthodox community leaders deemed obscene and offensive.
In the last month, teams of ultra-Orthodox men, acting on the instructions of their rabbis, have burned down nearly 50 bus shelters and defaced scores of others with spray paint.
This is not the first time that the ultra-Orthodox community, which accounts for only a small percentage of the Jewish population of Israel, has resorted to violent public protest. Women dressed in what the ultra-Orthodox consider immodest attire are routinely accosted when they pass through religious neighborhoods, and motorists are frequently stoned for driving on the Sabbath.
What is new is the suddenness and ferocity of the secular backlash, and the tit-for-tat spiral of violence that it has touched off.
In the incidents that occurred over the past weekend, vandals damaged sacred objects in a Tel Aviv seminary; the swastikas were painted on Tel Aviv’s main synagogue; the Jerusalem office of the secular Citizens’ Rights Movement was set on fire, and slogans appeared in the streets threatening death for the secular mayor of Petah Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb.
Risking Their Lives
The head of an activist secular group was quoted as saying that ultra-Orthodox men, who are distinguished by their black attire, beards and curly, untrimmed sideburns, will henceforth pass through secular neighborhoods only at the risk of their lives.
President Herzog, Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem and other officials have warned that unless the conflict is contained, it could become a rebellion.
Stepping into the fray, Peres told the Knesset that nothing less than “the soul of the state” of Israel is at stake in what he characterized as a conflict between secular and religious moderates on the one hand and “marginal, extremist and violent groups” on the other.
He warned that his coalition government, despite conflicting sympathies, will “not allow a group of deviationists to divert the ship of Israel . . . towards the foul shores of intolerance and violence.”
Peres did not indicate that he plans to take any specific steps to deal with the situation beyond those already taken. These include the creation last week of an unofficial reconciliation council to discuss the differences between the two sides plus stepped-up police patrols around ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and in the vicinity of potential targets for vandalism by either side--bus shelters, synagogues and seminaries.
The depth of resentment has been evident from the epithets each side has been routinely hurling at the other. The ultra-Orthodox accuse the less observant of being “Nazis” and characterize Kollek and other secularists as “worse than Hitler.”
The secularists have branded ultra-Orthodox rabbis would-be “Khomeinis” (referring to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran) seeking to impose their own brand of fundamentalist, medieval religion on the will of the majority.
Although the violent secular backlash has been sudden, the emotions behind it have been building for some time. The secularists’ resentment has been fed by the disproportionate amount of political influence wielded by several tiny religious parties that in recent years have imposed their will on the secular majority in a number of key areas.
Pressure by the religious parties, for instance, has stopped the national airline El Al from flying on the Sabbath, halted virtually all public transport on Saturdays and forced hotels to observe strict dietary laws.
The religious parties have been able to exercise this kind of influence because of the stalemate in recent years between the two major partners in the coalition government, the Labor Alignment of Prime Minister Peres and the Likud Bloc of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Because neither of the two parties has enough seats in the Knesset to govern outright, both have courted the small religious parties that they may need to form coalitions in the future.
“The present problem is the product in part of a political system that allows little parties to have power totally out of proportion to their constituencies,” says Rabbi David Rosen, an Orthodox Jew who heads the Sapir Jewish Center, one of several organizations seeking to bridge the differences between the secular and religious segments of the Israeli population.
This factor, Rosen says, together with the cultural clash between Western-oriented secularists, who are “extremely insensitive to the feelings of the deeply religious,” and the ultra-Orthodox, “whose traditions are rooted in 19th-Century Europe,” encourages extremism on both sides.
Rosen and other would-be bridge-builders have stepped up their efforts to mediate between the two sides. The Anti-Defamation League of the U.S.-based B’nai B’rith, for instance, has begun an education campaign in Israel featuring posters showing a shadowy young man hurling a rock. The target of the rock is not clear, but the message is.
A Threat to Society
“What we’re trying to say is that extremism, of whatever stripe, threatens the fabric of a democratic society,” said Harry Wald, the league’s representative in Israel.
To Wald and other officials affiliated with American Jewish organizations here, the issue goes beyond the fundamental one of what kind of state Israeli Jews want for themselves.
“As American Jews, we don’t feel we can afford to ignore this kind of malady and look forward to a society we can enjoy and identify with in the coming years,” Wald said. “If we, the Diaspora Jewry, become alienated from Israel, it is going to become very difficult for us to do our work maintaining support for Israel in the United States.”