Burn in Auschwitz, Jews tell Jews

Hatred between Orthodox and Reform Jews reduced a Jerusalem kindergarte n to ashes
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At first, Aliza Landau hoped the fire in the kindergarten she runs on the outskirts of Jerusalem had happened by accident. "I didn't want to believe anybody would do it on purpose," she says. "Then the police showed us where they broke a window and threw in burning liquid."

Inside the gutted school, its walls blackened by smoke, Mrs Landau shows the spot where the fire reduced a dozen children's miniature plastic chairs to a puddle. The floor is wet with dirty water and ashes, while on the balconies are heaps of toys and children's paintings.

Nobody is under arrest for the attempt to burn the kindergarten in Mevasseret Zion, a town of 20,000 in a forest west of Jerusalem, but locals have little doubt who was behind it. The 41 schoolchildren and their parents are Reform Jews, a modernising tradition in Judaism, much disliked by Orthodox Jews. The arson attack is the latest incident in the increasingly violent struggle between secular and religious Jews, a battle dividing Israel almost as much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In few places is the hostility between the two sides as deep as in Mevasseret Zion. It was first settled by poor but religious Jews from Morocco and Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1950s. But recently they have been swamped by better-off, secular Israelis, often of European origin. A new, expensive shopping mall, topped by a McDonald's restaurant, is a symbol of gentrification much disliked by older residents.

Aliza Landau had a taste of the anger of her more religious neighbours when she attended a council meeting in Mevasseret Zion in January which was to discuss giving the Reform Jews - a small minority in Israel but numerous in the US - land on which to build a synagogue. Although Mrs Landau is a survivor of the Holocaust one of the opponents of the plan came up to her and shouted: "You are not a Jew."

Chana Sorek, chairwoman of the Reform congregation to which 120 families belong, finds it too painful to recall the insults hurled at her at the same meeting. She told a local newspaper that somebody shouted: "It's too bad they didn't burn you at Auschwitz." Another, showing how religious and class animosities combine in Mavasseret Zion, said: "You sell pork in the shopping mall. We'll burn the shopping mall and we'll burn you, too."

Even when the kindergarten was burned earlier this month, criticism was not wholly muted. Aliza Landau, the kindergarten's educational director, asked the local council to let her use a disused school while hers was being repaired. They agreed, but she recalls that two members of Shas, a traditional religious party drawing most support from Middle East Jews, voted against.

Chana Sorek says she has had little contact with the original residents of Mevasseret Zion, but adds: "Some of them are not only religious but have criminal records." But the local construction workers repairing the kindergarten have no doubt about the protagonists in the dispute. As Aliza Landau showed us the damage to the school one of the workers shouted out jovially: "Shas told us not to allow in any journalists."

The ferocity of the conflict in Mevasseret Zion is not unprecedented. The Orthodox Jewish establishment uses extraordinarily vituperative language when speaking of secular Jews, or of those belonging to the Reform or Conservative traditions. This month, Yisrael Lau, the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi [Jews of European origin], compared Reform Jews to the suicide bombers of Islamic Jihad. The threatening rhetoric is taken seriously because it resembles rabbinical denunciations of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995.

Professor Shlomo Hasson, a specialist on conflict between the secular and religious at the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem, sees the incidents in Mevasseret Zion as "part of a wider battle for Jerusalem".

A poll he conducted shows 40 per cent of secular Jews in Jerusalem want to leave the city. The reason most often given is bad relations with the ultra-Orthodox. He says: "Many of them moved to Mevasseret Zion which they thought was a secular stronghold, but also contains traditional Jews who came in the Fifties."

An alliance of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing traditional Jews, often of Middle Eastern origin, has controlled Jerusalem's local government since 1993. A sign of their strength was shown earlier this month when a small group of men and women from Reform and Conservative synagogues tried to pray together - something forbidden to Orthodox Jews - near the Western Wall. They were dragged away, kicking and screaming, by the police.

The melting pot has never quite worked in Israel. The very stridency of Israeli nationalism, in part, is an attempt to bridge the divisions. Different communities dress, worship, vote and behave differently. In Mevasseret Zion, says Professor Hasson, "ethnic and religious differences come together in a dangerous cocktail".

Only recently 1,000 police drove out more than 100 squatters from the old Moroccan and Kurdish communities in the town who were homeless and who had occupied houses used by the government to temporarily accommodate new Jewish immigrants. This week, 10 of these homeless families asked for asylum from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in Jericho. Some carried banners saying: "Mevasseret, life or death".

For many secular Jews there is an obvious link between the motives which led to the smouldering kindergarten in Mevasseret Zion and those of Yigal Amir, the religious nationalist student who assassinated Mr Rabin. Israel is a profoundly religious country and in any conflict, national or religious, it does not take much for those involved to believe they are not only in the right but are the chosen instrument of God.