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Tensions rise in Israel between ultra-orthodox Jews and mainstream Israelis

By Kevin Flower, CNN
January 3, 2012 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tensions increasing between Israel's ultra-orthodox community and Israeli mainstream
  • The Haredim make up roughly 10% of Israel and are fastest growing segment of population
  • The Haredim constitute a powerful voting block in Israel's coalition government

Jerusalem (CNN) -- For Israelis waking up to their newspapers this past Sunday, the front pages offered a shocking and repulsive sight. Photographs of ultra-orthodox children donning yellow stars and striped prison uniforms reminiscent of the Holocaust stared back at them.

The arresting images were taken at a Saturday night rally in Jerusalem staged by a radical ultra-orthodox sect to protest what their members claimed was incitement against their community by the media and the Israeli government.

The protest, which drew widespread condemnation from all corners of the country, is the latest development in an increasingly acrimonious conflict between members of Israel's ultra-orthodox community, known as the Haredim, against the Jewish Israeli mainstream.

In recent weeks many Israelis have been waging a high-profile public campaign against attempts by some in the ultra-orthodox community to enforce a strict form of gender segregation and rules of modesty on females outside of their community. In cities with larger ultra-orthodox populations this has played out in public buses and in some stores with with Haredi men insisting on strict separation between men and women. In some neighborhoods, billboards with images of women have been defaced -- leading some advertisers to stop using photographs of women in their campaigns.

The issue hit critical mass, however, with the story of eight-year-old Israeli girl Naama Margolese. In a nationally televised news report, the bespectacled and pony-tailed schoolgirl broke down in tears and expressed terror at the prospect of walking several hundred yards to her school in the mixed community of Beit Shemesh for fear of being spat on and cursed at by ultra-orthodox neighbors who thought Margolese and her mother were not dressed modestly enough.

The broadcast sparked a wave of criticism and prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out against the segregation of women, referring to it as "an unacceptable phenomenon that goes against the values of Judaism and democracy." Several thousands Israelis rallied in Beith Shemesh the next week demanding the government do more to curb the influence of ultra-orthodox elements whom they accused of being a Taliban-like minority.

Ultra-orthodox leaders have warned warn that their community should not be judged based on the actions of a radical few, and contend that the conflict with other parts of Israeli society is overblown.

"The Haredi community accepts the will of the secular community to live their lives in their neighborhoods as they wish," says Rabbi Shmuel Poppenheim of the Eda Haredit sect. "I do not want to impose myself on the secular public."

But the Israeli mainstream's divide with the ultra-orthodox community goes much deeper than issues of gender segregation.

The Haredim, who make up approximately 10% of the country according to government figures, are the fastest growing segment of the population and constitute a powerful voting block in Israel's coalition government. They have used this power to maintain government subsidies for working-age men to study the Torah full-time and protect the ability for ultra-orthodox Israelis to win easy exemptions from compulsory military service.

These arrangements have prompted a growing sense of resentment and anger among other Israelis, says author and columnist Bradley Burston.

"What people are thinking is that this is absolutely unsustainable," says Burston.

"They can't go on providing these kinds of subsidies for this kind of lifestyle, especially if it seems that the same people you are subsidizing are going to turn on you and turn on Jews everywhere because they don't like their behavior."

While the tensions between the ultra-orthodox and other Israelis are not likely to result in a major schism anytime soon, Burston believes the Haredi community needs to do a better job at integrating into Israeli society. If not, he says, the schism could become a major crisis for Israel in the years ahead.

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