Battle lines of religion are drawn in blood

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The Independent Online
Iwo, proprietor of a non-kosher delicatessen on Shamai street in Jerusalem, is a worried man. His collection of china pigs on one shelf of his meat display cabinet leaves no doubt about the type of products on sale.

"I hope Bibi [Netanyahu, the prime minister elect] will show leadership, otherwise there will be civil war," he says. "War over pork?" asks one of his staff who voted for Mr Netanyahu. "Surely not."

The surge in the strength of the religious parties, all of which will have ministries in the next government, worries secular Israelis. Rabbi Haim Miller, chairman of the Yahudat HaTorah ultra-Orthodox party, soon to be deputy mayor of Jerusalem, is already demanding the closure of the non-kosher McDonald's further down Shamai street from Iwo's.

There are other religious demands. The ultra-Orthodox want Bar-Ilan road in Jerusalem, which cuts through their neighbourhood, closed to traffic on the Sabbath. At the moment local people discourage unwary motorists by throwing stones. They also want to prevent archaeologists digging up ancient graves by amending the law on antiquities.

The election, in which the National Religious Party, Shas, supported by Sephardic Jews and Yahudat HaTorah, won a fifth of the vote and 23 seats in the Knesset, shows the strength of the religious right in Israel.

Their success ends hopes of loosening the rabinate's grip over marriage and divorce, which has forced many Israelis to get their marriage documents from Paraguay or Cyprus.

Iwo's delicatessen and McDonald's will probably stay open, as Mr Netanyahu will not want to offend his secular followers. He himself was accused during the campaign of marrying his second wife (he has been married three times) in a civil ceremony in the US. He says he is easing himself onto a kosher regime by stages, a statement greeted with derision in Israel.

Mr Netanyahu will also be under pressure not to surrender to the religious parties from two of his likely coalition partners, the Russian immigrant party and the Third Way, a Labour splinter group which opposes giving up the Golan Heights.

The Russians under Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, want easier conversion to Judaism for immigrants, less rigorous marriage laws and arrangements enabling non-Jewish Israelis to get buried.

Israeli political loyalties have always been determined by the division between the secular and the religious. But the divide has been deepened by the assassination of the prime minister Yitzhak Rabin last November, by a Jew motivated by religious nationalism. Secular Israelis for the first time realised religious Zionists were prepared to kill them.

The defeat in the elections of the Labour party and its left-wing ally, Meretz - they lost 13 seats, reducing their total to 43 in the 120-seat Knesset - also appears to be a rejection of their free-market policies. Rich cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa voted for Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister. Poor towns, such as Ashdod and Beerseva, went for Mr Netanyahu.

Only 25 per cent of the Israeli population has benefited from high growth rates. "Israel and Ireland lead the Western world in poverty," said Elisha Shapira, at a recent conference at Tel Aviv university. He cited a recent report showing that 1 million Israelis live below the poverty line. The lack of government help for the poor appears to have turned Russian and Ethiopian immigrants decisively against Labour.

Patrick Cockburn