Israelis reveal fears of a Jewish civil war

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The Independent Online
As hostility increases between secular and religious Israelis, a poll indicates that 47 per cent of Jews believe, with differing degrees of certainty, that the polarisation of their society may lead to a Jewish civil war.

According to a poll of 1,025 Jewish Israelis carried out by the Geocartographic Institute, it is secular Jews who feel under greatest threat. Some 51 per cent of them believe that there will be a civil war, compared with 38 per cent of religious Jews. Of the believers in a civil war, 30 per cent think it inevitable, 40 per cent probable and 24 per cent possible.

The problem is far more complicated than a simple division between secular and religious, between the fifth of the population which never goes to the synagogue and those who go every day. The melting- pot which was intended to produce a single Israeli identity never entirely worked. In addition to the Israeli Arabs, there are five distinct Jewish communities in Israel, each with its own interests and institutions.

These are the ultra-orthodox, the religious nationalists, the Sephardi Jews, the Russian immigrants and the secular Jews. The members of each community are usually easily identifiable in the street.

The ultra-orthodox sport black suits, and the religious nationalists - a coherent community with their separate educa- tional system and university - skullcaps. The 600,000 Russian immigrants are not difficult to identify, nor are the Sephardi Jews, whose parents or grandparents came from Spain, Portugal and North Africa, and whose absorption has only been partly successful.

One of the surprises of the last election was the success of their political party, Shas. Secular Israelis, highly educated, affluent, of European origin and conscious of their status as founders of the state, have tended to underestimate the strength of these other sub-cultures. Labour, the party of the secular, political and military establishment, permanently in government until 1977, was always poor at sharing power. It owed its victory in 1992 to the support of the Russian Jews, who are largely secular, but four years later ran just one Russian immigrant for the Knesset.

The division between the secular and the religious has always been at the heart of Israeli politics but the victory of the right in the May election increased tension. Four years after it took power, the secular government of Labour and its left-wing ally, Meretz, was defeated by one in coalition with religious parties.

The assassination last year of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, at a peace rally in Tel Aviv also gave many secular Jews a sense that the religious nationalist right does not play by democratic rules.

This makes it more difficult for a right-wing government to overcome cleavages within Israeli society by appeals to national solidarity.

Always present within Israeli society, these stresses are much greater today. For the first time, in May, the Prime Minister and the Knesset were elected separately. Political fragmen- tation has grown. The number of polls - such as that by the Geocartographic Institute on the likelihood of civil war - assessing the strength of Jewish solidarity and the degree of animosity between groups is itself a sign of nervousness.

Short of armed conflict with the Palestinians, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is probably agile enough to keep the conflict between secular and religious from boiling over.

Despite the big gains of the religious communities in politics, education and their increas-ing role in the army, there are some signs of cultural counter-attack against super-heated religious nationalism and reliance on armed strength alone to which Mr Netanyahu sometimes appeals.