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Jewish Solidarity Split by Cultural Divisions


Patrick Cockburn, reporting from Jerusalem, concludes our series marking the 50th anniversary of Israel's foundation with a look at the nation's social faultlines

When Jews belonging to the modernising Reform tradition opened a kindergarten last year in Mevasseret Zion, a town west of Jerusalem, it was immediately gutted by fire. In the middle of the night somebody broke a window and threw burning liquid inside, which set fire to the children's plastic chairs, reducing them to a puddle.

Nobody was arrested, but there were few doubts about who was behind the attack. Reform Jews are a small minority in Israel, although they number millions in the United States. They have a strong secular tradition, are of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) origin and are usually well off. By contrast, the first Israeli inhabitants of Mevasseret, who feel they are being shunted aside, were Jews from Morocco and Iraqi Kurdistan; their culture is religious and most work as truckers or in the construction industry.

Aliza Landau, who runs the kindergarten and is a Holocaust survivor, recalls how she had earlier gone to a council meeting at Mevasseret to discuss obtaining land for a Reform synagogue. During a furious argument one of the opponents of the plan came up to her and shouted: "You are not a Jew."

The antagonisms run deep and the divide between secular and religious Jews, not the division between left and right, is at the heart of Israeli politics. The outside world only began to wake up to the strength of the animosity when Yigal Amir, a nationalist student at a religious university, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, secular and Ashkenazi, the war hero of the early Jewish state, in 1995.

Just as the myth of Jewish solidarity was over-stated after 1948, so the consequences of ethnic, religious and social divisions between Jews may be exaggerated now. It is not that they are not deep, but that the ability of Israeli Jews to unite in the face of a common foe, real or imagined, remains very great. Israelis are still willing to spend three years in the army.

Yet the melting pot has never entirely worked. This was less evident in the Fifties as political and cultural power was so firmly in the hands of the ruling elite, secular in culture, mainly originating in Russia and Poland. Oriental Jews, mostly from North Africa, had marginal influence. Real differences emerged as they became partly integrated, better educated, developing political and religious vehicles to defend their identity.

Israel has six identifiable sub-cultures: Ultra-orthodox or Haredi Jews in their 19th-century black coats; the national religious with strong support among the settlers of the West Bank; oriental traditional Jews from the Middle East; Jewish secular and elitist culture with its centre in the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa; the Russian sub-culture following the arrival of 800,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union; and the Israeli-Arabs.

"There is virtually no intermarriage between the members of most of these subcultures,' wrote Baruch Kimmerling, professor of the sociology of politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Some even lack common sets of daily manners that would enable the sharing of a meal with one another."

Groups have territorial bases; north Jerusalem is increasingly ultra-orthodox; 40 per cent of secular Jews say they want to leave the city, the most common reason being fear of the Haredi. Different groups have their own educational institutions; the national religious educate 250,000 students from kindergarten to university, the aim being to create an environment between ultra-orthodoxy and secularism.

For the first time in the last Israeli election in 1996, the prime minister and knesset were elected separately. The result was that the voter could express his broader political views on how the state should be run in voting for the prime minister. But in the knesset, the voter could vote for smaller parties, more expressive of his or her ethnic and religious identity. Thus Shas, highly organised with an ultra-orthodox leadership, appealed to oriental Jews and increased its seats from six to ten.

Since it lost the election in 1977, the Labour party has been poor at putting together the powerful coalitions which has allowed Likud to form the government on every occasion except 1992. Labour was too used to holding power to share it. Its old religious allies were increasingly right wing and nationalist. In 1992 it only won the election through its appeal to the Russians but four years later it had almost no Russian candidates. Two of its bases of support, the kibbutzniks and the Israeli-Arabs, are deeply unpopular with the rest of Israel.

The mechanics of this diverse society are complex. For instance, the Russians have their own newspapers, watch Russian television and often consider the level of Israeli culture as below that of Russia.

There are other sub-groups whose grievances may trigger violence. One of the most savage riots in Jerusalem in recent years came in 1996 when 10,000 Ethiopian Jews almost stormed the prime minister's office. They were enraged by the discovery that blood donated by Ethiopians to the national blood bank was secretly discarded for fear that it might be infected by the HIV virus. Jews who came from Yemen are increasingly alienated by the belief that their babies were kidnapped when they arrived after the war of independence.

How far do these differences erode communal solidarity as Jews and Israelis? Nobody quite knows the answer. The figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, is deeply divisive and he continues to be loathed by the secular left. When widespread fighting with Palestinians followed his opening of a tunnel under Jerusalem's Muslim quarter in 1996, many Israeli army reservists did not report for duty.

But there are countervailing forces. Suicide bombs may remind Israelis that there is no peace with the Palestinians, but they also ensure Israel's political and religious unity.

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