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Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox Jews : Truce Holds in Israel Confrontation

Times Staff Writer

A shaky truce appeared to be taking hold here Friday between secular and rigidly Orthodox Jews, even as a poll provided new evidence of the underlying hostility that fostered a recent series of violent attacks by extremists in both camps.

The spokesman for a secular underground group responsible for anti-religious vandalism in extreme Orthodox neighborhoods said in an interview that his group has decided to halt its activities in hopes that the move will encourage religious extremists on the other side of the conflict to do the same.

At the same time, a suburban Tel Aviv movie theater remained closed Friday night in a gesture of good will toward the neighborhood’s ultra-Orthodox residents, who have waged a sometimes violent campaign against operation of the theater on the Sabbath.

It was the first Friday in months that Petah Tikva’s Heichal Cinema did not open, and the action coincided with a promise by the suburb’s chief rabbi that no more religious demonstrations would be staged outside the theater without police permission.

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Jerusalem Post’s Poll

In spite of these and other gestures meant to calm the situation, a Jerusalem Post poll published Friday offered new evidence that animosity between Israel’s secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority is deeper and more complex than the recent cycle of violence might indicate.

Conducted by pollster Hannoch Smith before the most recent clashes, the survey indicated that two out of three Israelis consider Orthodox extremists to be “unacceptable,” the Post reported.

Only 14% of respondents said that they “feel close” to ultra-Orthodox citizens or find them “acceptable"--fewer than the 23% that found Israel’s Arab minority “acceptable.” Seventeen percent of respondents said they were indifferent to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the remainder had no opinion. More than 25% of respondents said they were indifferent toward Israeli Arabs.

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In Jerusalem, with a larger concentration of religious Jews than the national average, nearly half of those polled ranked the religious-secular split as the nation’s most important problem, far overshadowing the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Post reported.

Given such divisions, Israeli officials and other observers tend to doubt that the relative calm of the past few days will last.

“Even if there is quiet for a time, it will be violated at the next possible opportunity,” one Israeli newspaper columnist predicted.

Secular Israelis object to what they see as unwarranted infringement on their life styles imposed by a politically powerful religious minority. The ultra-Orthodox minority objects to the routine flaunting by the majority of what its members consider to be sacred Jewish traditions.

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A monthlong wave of secular-religious violence crested last week when secular extremists in Tel Aviv burned a synagogue and vandalized a suburban religious school.

The arson attacks shocked the nation. President Chaim Herzog called them “a disgrace,” and Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned that “the soul of the state” is threatened by the religious-secular strife.

Bus Shelter Vandalism

The Tel Aviv assaults followed a campaign of vandalism by Orthodox extremists against bus shelters displaying what they considered to be offensive posters advertising women’s swimsuits and other products.

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Fifty of Jerusalem’s 260 bus shelters were burned down, 57 others were defaced, and shelters in several other cities were also vandalized.

A spokesman for the underground “anti-Haredim (anti-ultra-Orthodox) terrorism” group, who requested anonymity, said in an interview that the attack on the synagogue had inspired his group to call off a campaign, in which its members infiltrated religious neighborhoods to paint graffiti on walls and otherwise vandalize homes and synagogues.

The spokesman said that while his underground group had nothing to do with the synagogue fire, its members feared that unless they declared a cease-fire, someone would be seriously hurt or killed in the escalating violence.

The company that operates the bus shelters subsequently withdrew all of the advertising posters considered to be offensive. And in a symbolic gesture last Monday, a group of about 50 secular and religious Jerusalemites began rebuilding bus shelters destroyed along the city’s central Jaffa Road.

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Despite such gestures, an interview with a young resident of the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter here made it clear that tension among his co-religionists remains high.

The resident, a 24-year-old father of two who admitted that he was one of those who defaced bus shelters, recalled that arsonists tried last Tuesday to burn down the Toldot Aharon’s religious school where he studies.

“There is no cease-fire,” this ultra-Orthodox man said. There have been no attacks on bus shelters in the last few days because “the poster war is over--we won it. Just look anywhere in Jerusalem--all you see are coffee and mayonnaise ads,” he said.

Meanwhile, he added, members of his yeshiva, or religious school, continue to meet nightly. Instead of planning attacks on offending bus shelters, however, they now discuss “how to protect our institutions in Mea Shearim. . . . Every secular Jew who enters Mea Shearim is now suspect.”

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He repeatedly referred to the ultra-Orthodox quarter as a “fortress,” and added: “We have patrols out and we will deal with anyone who comes to vandalize our neighborhood.”


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