'Pork police' attack shops in name of Judaism: Immigrants and ultra-Orthodox Jews are at war in the Israeli town of Ashdod, writes Sarah Helm

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The Independent Online
'THE Nazis used to measure your skull to tell if you were a Jew or not,' says Uri Sernof, laying out 'illicit' produce on his chopping-board, as the door is unlocked to let another customer into this small store thick with the smell of spicy pig meat. There is little light. Net curtains obscure the clandestine trade and bars protect against intruders.

'We are against this business of defining who is a Jew. It is primitive. They think if we sell pork today the next day we will be selling narcotics. It's brainwashing.'

Mr Sernof is the latest victim in the 'pork-wars' of Ashdod being fought in the shabby shopping malls of this Mediterranean resort town where in the past two years the population has swollen by a third with the arrival of 35,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They care little for Jewish ritual, but have been brought to live cheek-by-jowl with Jews of largely Middle Eastern origin, many of whom are traditional in their practices.

The clash of cultures has turned violent in recent weeks, as the religious have used force to end what they see as one of the worst violations of Judaism perpetrated by the newcomers: the sale of pork, which they say is barred by Jewish law. The windows of Mr Sernof's shop were broken last week by ultra-Orthodox 'pork police', who had first tried to burn the store down. Mr Sernof's car has been burnt and he has been physically attacked. Most of the 14 pork stores opened by the new immigrants have been harassed. One was burnt down.

'It is humiliating. The anti-Semitism here is worse than in the Soviet Union. It is as if we Russians were from another planet,' says Mr Sernof, who immigrated from Kiev two years ago. Vera Moizheshevsky, another pork butcher, says: 'Life was more democratic and liberal in Leningrad.' She used to be an engineer in the Soviet Union and now pays a pounds 25 fine each week for selling pork. 'I came here expecting a European city. It is wild and oriental. I think they are jealous of us Russians.'

Pork sale is not illegal in Israel, but municipalities have discretion to ban it, and Ashdod passed a by-law 20 years ago stipulating that all shops selling pork should be subject to a fine. 'Those who eat pork bring illness. They bring worms,' said Asher Levy, an ultra-Orthodox Ashdod council member who wants the new shops closed down. 'The Russians have lost their Judaism. They have not immigrated to the US or England. They have come to Israel and must observe our traditions.'

The problems of 'absorption' - as Israel terms the process of assimilating new immigrants - continues to confound Israel's political leaders. They hailed the arrival of the latest wave of Jews from the former Soviet republics as a chance to strengthen the Jewish state but have failed so far make the new immigrants feel welcome or valued. Stories of cultural alienation and hardship among the new arrivals increase by the day, as do the accusations by the Russians of discrimination against them by the earlier waves of immigrants.

In Ashdod all the problems are writ large. Until the new immigrants began to arrive, the town was a Sephardi-dominated community, of largely Moroccan and Yemenite Jews, who arrived in the early 1950s.

Many suffered intense discrimination from the already established Ashkenazim, or European Jews, who had built the state. Forty years on, the Sephardim of Ashdod, who have just begun to find their own foothold on the economic ladder, do not welcome the arrival of the Russians, many highly qualified and cultured, whom they see as competition and who are given money and privileges on arrival to help them start their new lives. And the religious do not welcome their arrival either. Ashdod has always had a large ultra-Orthdox sector, accounting for 20 per cent of the population.

Almost all the Russian newcomers are entirely secular. Under Soviet persecution, few were able to maintain Jewish traditions and in the end most lost the habit or ceased to try. 'Everyone ate pork at my home,' said Vladimir, who arrived from Siberia 10 months ago and is now a a regular customer in Mr Sernof's store.

The Russians are determined to fight what they see as religious bullying. And they scorn attempts by the religious to 'convert' them to their form of Judaism.

In the municipal elections due in November, the Russian immigrants are planning their own political campaign. 'In the Soviet Union it was Communism. Here it is Judaism,' says Mr Sernof. 'There you had to be a real Communist. Here you have to be a real Jew. We will fight to exercise our freedom.'