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Rise of rabbinical 'Ayatollahs' divides Israel against itself

Jewish fundamentalism has much in common with the Islamic variety, writes Patrick Cockburn
In the weeks before the Israeli election, Shas, one of the religious parties, distributed 150,000 amulets blessed by a venerable rabbi. Many secular Israelis were disbelieving or contemptuous. But when the results of the election came through, one Israeli commentator said the amulets of the ultra-Orthodox Jews had proved more powerful than the candles around the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the murdered prime minister.

As Binyamin Netanyahu forms his government the religious parties, fresh from their success at the polls, where they won a fifth of all seats in the Knesset, have been making their demands. All shops and businesses should be closed on the Sabbath, dietary laws must be more rigorously enforced, rabbinical courts and their control of marriage, divorce and burial should be strengthened. Archaeologists are even to be prevented from digging up the bones of the dead.

Secular Israelis are deeply worried. It is not merely the threat that the non-kosher McDonalds in Shamai Street, Jerusalem might be closed. The deepest division in Israel is not between right and left, hawks and doves, but between the religious and secular Jews, between those who want a theocratic state and those who see Israel as a nation much like any other.

A few months before he was assassinated, Mr Rabin denounced rabbinical "Ayatollahs" for calling on soldiers to disobey orders to withdraw from the West Bank. After the election Shulamit Aloni, a left-wing politician, said she feared the rise of "Khomeini-ism" in Israel. In both cases the terms were intended to be derogatory, but the growing strength of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, long disregarded abroad, has much in common with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the Muslim world.

The religious parties - the National Religious Party, Shas and United Torah Jewry - have played a pivotal political role in the past. In 1977 they brought down a Labour government after it had held a ceremony to mark the delivery of American military aircraft on the Sabbath. In 1990 Shimon Peres was thwarted at the last moment in his attempt to form a government with ultra-Orthodox support because the influential nonagenarian, Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, feared Labour party secularism: he suspected kibbutzniks of eating rabbit, a forbidden food under Jewish dietary rules.

As secular parties like Labour and Likud decline, it is Shas and United Torah Jewry which alone give a sense of belonging. Leaders such as Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie - who blessed the amulets - or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wearing dark glasses and a gold-embroidered robe, draw enthusiastic crowds of a kind quite unmatched by other party politicians. The success of Shas in the election stems partly from Rabbi Yosef's eloquent post-Sabbath sermons, broadcast by satellite to tens of thousands of his followers, mostly Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

The hardcore of Jewish Orthodoxy are the Haredim - "those who fear God" - with their long side curls, dark suits and black hats. Every aspect of this tight-knit community's dress, diet and personal behaviour is geared to distinguish them not just from gentiles, but from other Jews. Drivers who pass through the Mea She'Arim district in Jerusalem on the Sabbath are regularly stoned. Here people live in a world governed by intricate regulations, distinguishing them from others as minutely as the Indian caste system.

Not surprisingly, the march of the ultra-Orthodox is proving highly unsettling to Jews in the diaspora, notably those in America, who belong to a more secular tradition. A letter from a coalition of 19 Jewish organisations in the US last week warned the incoming government against a surrender to the religious parties which "will not only threaten the atmosphere of moderation and mutual respect in Israel, but is also likely to create a serious rift with the Diaspora, where between 80 and 90 per cent are not Orthodox.".

A few years ago, ultra-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and worldwide, might have been considered a remnant. The communities from which they came in Poland and Lithuania had been devastated by the Nazis. But more recently they benefited from two developments.

Since Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Orthodox have drawn closer to territorial nationalism, and possession of the Land of Israel has become a priority; four out of the nine members of the National Religious Party in the Knesset come from Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The second trend benefiting the Jewish Orthodox is the same as that which has fuelled fundamentalist Christianity in the US and Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world. As traditional bonds of community decay under the impact of television and the car, it is Orthodox Jews, with some 600 rules of behaviour drawn from the Talmud, who can provide a sense of identity and personal worth. Israelis often speak of Israel becoming Americanised, something which is welcomed in the better-off districts of Tel Aviv and Haifa, but it has caused resentment in poorer areas and the development towns.

Secular Israelis draw comfort from the fact that most voters did not favour the religious parties. The appeal of rabbis like Josef, Shach and Kadourie is probably limited to a quarter of the population, and the incoming Russian immigrants are deeply secular. But the religious parties and their followers have a greater commitment to their beliefs than the majority of Israelis. Their rabbis have an appeal secular leaders do not. At the next election nobody will laugh at the effectiveness of amulets.