Secular Jews fear the demise of religious tolerance in Israel

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JERUSALEM — Will the religious parties' strong showing in Israel's May 29 elections spell the end of religious tolerance here?

Many believe the fracas over Jerusalem's Bar Ilan Street is the first salvo in an all-out war between religious and secular forces that has been simmering for years.

Worried that an official decision to close the road to traffic on Shabbat will lead to closure of further roads and entertainment venues now open on Shabbat, non-Orthodox Israelis are anticipating future standoffs.

"The ultra-Orthodox are now in a position to impose their beliefs on others," says Ornan Yekutieli, a vocal secularist who heads the left-wing Meretz faction in the Jerusalem municipality.

"In recent years we've been very successful in our bid to make Jerusalem a modern city that attracts both religious and secular. Now the struggle begins over whether the city can continue to be home to a mix of Jewish communities," he added.

Now, he adds, Israel has a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, "who owes his premiership to the ultra-Orthodox."

And "Netanyahu will bend over backwards [for[ them. The price will be our civil rights."

On two July weekends, the street saw confrontations between tens of thousands of local haredim (ultrareligious) who want the Bar Ilan closed on Shabbat and religious holidays; secular Jews who want to keep it open to traffic; and police.

Haredim threw rocks and trash at passing cars and police, who aimed water cannons at Orthodox protesters. Last weekend saw a demonstration by some 150,000 ultrareligious Jews, but no violence.

Although Lubavitch rabbi Kosriel Shemtov acknowledges the religious community's support helped elect Netanyahu, he disputes that the Bar Ilan Street closure means "we're cashing in."

"Government officials from all parties look at the interests of their constituents. It's only natural that haredi Knesset members will try to help their constituents."

He rejects Yekutieli's claim that the religious community's newfound political clout will erode the religious status quo, but agrees that "there is no place for violence" any time.

Recently, haredim attacked a secular graduate student who parked her car — on a weekday — near the religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Geulah. The woman, clad in a light summer dress, escaped with only minor injuries, but the car was badly damaged.

Meanwhile, local media have been quick to report alleged attempts at religious coercion by the haredim since the elections. In the towns of Hadera and Kiryat Malachi, female municipal workers have been ordered to dress modestly in accordance with Jewish law.

A Jerusalem supermarket owned by the huge Supersol chain refuses to admit women dressed "immodestly" — that is, in garments hemmed above the knee. The store, in an industrial area bordering religious and secular districts, provides a skirtlike coverup.

Israel Women's Network spokeswoman Orit Sulitzeanu says, "There is a law that supervises the sale of goods mandating that [stores] cannot set unreasonable conditions. We consider these conditions unreasonable."

The network may file an official complaint against the store, and is distributing a petition urging a boycott of all Supersol stores if the management does not drop its dress code.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, calls dress codes a symptom of "the government's new parameters."

Citing an agreement reached in June between the Likud Party and coalition members, Sacks says, "The new government has promised to pass legislation reversing any Supreme Court rulings that grant legitimacy to the Reform and Conservative movements."

At risk, he says, are recent Supreme Court decisions paving the way for non-Orthodox conversions and burials in Israel, as well as for non-Orthodox individuals' membership in local religious councils.

"Netanyahu can stand before the American Jewish community and say he is committed to the religious status quo, but what is the status quo?" Sacks says.

"To the haredim, maintaining the status quo means ensuring that the [Chief] Rabbinate can tell a couple it will not convert the baby they adopted until the father can prove he goes to shul and the mother covers her hair.

"It means prohibiting Reform and Conservative Jews from praying as a group at the Western Wall."

Although such laws have not been introduced — and there is no guarantee that they would pass — Reform and Conservative leaders are gearing up for battle.

Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, says the group has learned that "bureaucracies and monopolies will not endorse pluralism or civil rights" unless forced by legislation.

"I anticipate spending a lot of time in court."