God-fearing tighten grip on Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
When a group of Jewish women tried to pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem this week wearing skull-caps, normally a male prerogative, they were attacked by ultra-orthodox men who spat at them and hurled chairs, shouting "bitches" and "Nazis".

In a later confrontation Yigal Bibi, deputy minister of religious affairs, denounced the women, seen as secular in Israel, for seeking religious equality with men, asking: "Why do you defile this place?" He said secular Jews had beaches, theatres and discotheques, while the religious had only the Wall.

The display of violence and intolerance by the ultra- orthodox or Haredi, in their black hats and coats, was the latest episode in the struggle between secular and fundamentalist Jews for control of Jerusalem. No fewer than 40 per cent of secular Jews in Jerusalem now say they want to leave, and the most common reason given is bad relations with the Haredi.

"The major issue for the Jewish population is not relations between Jews and Arabs, but between Haredi Jews and secular Jews," said Professor Amiram Gonen of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies which carried out the survey. "The secular Jews feel they are being suffocated."

The strength of the ultra- orthodox community is visible in Bar-Ilan street in northern Jerusalem, where the Haredim want to close an important thoroughfare to all traffic during the Sabbath. For secular Jews the future of Bar-Ilan street, scene of repeated battles over the summer, is a symbol of their embattled status in the city as a whole.

But their real fear is demographic. Ultra-orthodox women have three times as many babies as secular Jews. They now number almost 30 per cent of the Jewish population of Jerusalem and they have come to dominate the north side of the city. Already 55 per cent of children in kindergartens come from ultra-orthodox families.

Secular and traditional Jews feel menaced by the deeply exclusive ultra- orthodox. Originating in Poland and Lithuania in the 18th century the Haredi (meaning God fearing) live in tight communities led by their rabbis and united by strict dietary and sexual rules and respect for the Sabbath.

In the last 20 years attempts at coexistence have failed. Professor Shlomo Hasson, a senior researcher at the Floersheimer Institute, in a study just published on the struggle, says: "Neighbourhoods adjacent to Jerusalem's Haredi district have gradually changed in character because the secular residents, outnumbered and overwhelmed, are eventually forced to cede their neighbourhoods."

While the outside world has focused almost exclusively on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians the city has been the scene of bitter territorial battles between Jews. In Har Nof in the west, after some attempt at compromise, the secular population was forced to go. In Ramot Allon in the north, secular Jews fight to control the local administration. In Jerusalem as a whole 250 streets are now closed to traffic on the Sabbath.

In the Eighties the ultra- orthodox protested against symptoms of secularism such as sexually suggestive advertisements. Today they are much more political and effective. In 1993 they enabled Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, to win office. Ever since they have been accused of using municipal offices in planning, housing and taxation to favour their own community.

In 1996 the ultra-orthodox became even more powerful by giving crucial support to Benjamin Netanyahu in the election for prime minister. Their alliance with the nationalist right makes their grip difficult to break. With chances of reconciliation so small Professor Hasson says that one scenario might be for Jerusalem to "be divided into a Haredi district in the north and a secular area in the south".