- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

JERUSALEM | After years of discontent brewing between religious and secular Jews in Israel’s ancient capital city, residents have drawn battle lines over the construction of an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten in a mostly secular Jewish neighborhood.

The proposed kindergarten has become emblematic of a greater struggle over the future of Jerusalem’s Jewish identity. It pits proud secularists, whose parents and grandparents built the modern city, against the fast-growing religious community, which considers Jerusalem to be a sanctuary for prayer and Jewish study.

Despite their common language, religion and nationality, they coexist uneasily.

The kindergarten’s advocates say it would serve the needs of ultra-Orthodox families - newly arrived to the neighborhood - whose children attend separate state religious schools. Secular residents oppose the kindergarten because they say it will attract more ultra-Orthodox families to the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.

Several secular Jewish neighborhoods have turned religious over the past decade because of high birthrates among the ultra-Orthodox as well as the migration of secular Jews from Jerusalem. In ultra-Orthodox communities, driving is banned on the Jewish Sabbath and women generally are forbidden from showing their bare arms or legs in public. Ultra-Orthodox men sometimes throw stones at passing cars on Saturdays or spit on women wearing tank tops or shorts who bicycle through their neighborhoods.

Tensions bubbled over at a recent city council meeting when ultra-Orthodox council member Rabbi Avraham Feiner labeled those who are seeking to block the kindergarten “Nazis,” perhaps the worst insult in a country founded in the wake of the Holocaust.

“You’re not letting us live where we want to live,” Rabbi Feiner told the kindergarten opponents.

Secular residents in the galleries shouted him down. Security guards physically removed more than a dozen secular city residents who would not keep quiet. “You’re selling out our neighborhood,” one woman shouted.

Outside observers have long said that the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians binds together Israel’s disparate Jewish communities and has saved the country from a conflict from within.

As Palestinian violence in Israel has waned in recent years and the ultra-Orthodox community has gained in numbers and political clout, Jewish residents in Israel’s largest city are taking sights at each other.

“Mr. Mayor, your kindergarten is a provocation,” secular council member Joseph “Pepe” Alalu told ultra-Orthodox mayor Uri Lupolianski, at the recent council meeting. “What you are doing is causing a war, and you are going to destroy the third temple,” Mr. Alalu continued, referring to the modern state of Israel.

Once a tiny minority in Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox, who follow a strict interpretation of the Torah and prefer to live in enclaves to shield youths from the depravations of the outside world, have grown to constitute an estimated 38 percent of Jerusalem’s Jewish population of 481,000. In the most recent mayoral race, in 2003, ultra-Orthodox candidates won the mayoral office and a majority on the city council.

Religious Jews, including the modern-Orthodox, who also strictly observe Jewish law but are integrated into secular Israeli society, constitute a majority of Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Jerusalem’s 252,000 Palestinians are not represented on the city council because they do not vote, as they do not recognize Israeli control of East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Israel’s mainstream media has intensely covered the so-called culture wars in recent months.

A furor erupted in June after Jerusalem city officials forced a secular girls dance troupe to dress “modestly” for a public performance. The dancers wore black knit caps and smocks over their dance uniforms. Israeli tabloids called it the “Taliban dance troupe.”

Last month, two purported members of a secret modesty patrol were arrested in connection with the severe beating of a woman who left the ultra-Orthodox community and was accused of “improper relations” with married men. Another man was arrested for setting fire to non-kosher shops.

Secular residents in mixed neighborhoods have fought back, repeatedly destroying religious structures, sets of poles and wires called an eruv, which enable ultra-Orthodox parents to push their children in strollers on the Sabbath. Every week, the ultra-Orthodox repair the eruv.

Residents of Kiryat Yovel hired a lawyer to temporarily block City Hall plans to place two temporary classrooms for an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten on a vacant lot and have parked their cars on both sides of a street to prevent access by construction vehicles. They keep a constant daytime presence at the site under a sign that reads: “The war for our home.”

“We came to this neighborhood partly because it’s a secular neighborhood where no streets are closed on Shabbat, where we can raise our kids in a secular education system,” said Michal Gomel, 27, who lives in an apartment building overlooking the contested site and is one of the leaders of the neighborhood opposition. “We’re not against ultra-Orthodox people. We’re against not asking the citizens what they want and not having a democratic process.”

Residents said they have pushed to no avail for a community center or after-school arts center for the site.

One hundred and fifty ultra-Orthodox children in the neighborhood attend kindergarten in other neighborhoods or in a makeshift school in a rented apartment, according to the nonprofit organization Etz Hadaat, or Tree of Knowledge, which is sponsoring the proposed kindergarten.

“Nobody really believes this isn’t going to happen,” said Yeshayahu Wein, director of the organization’s 51 kindergartens in Jerusalem, “because it’s a real need. Nobody wants the children to stay at home.”

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