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An armed ultra-orthodox Jewish settler walks in the mountains overlooking the Palestinian village of Burin in the West Bank. (MENAHEM KAHANA)
An armed ultra-orthodox Jewish settler walks in the mountains overlooking the Palestinian village of Burin in the West Bank. (MENAHEM KAHANA)

Globe essay

A hostile takeover of Zionism Add to ...

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has come a long way.

No longer are they the inward-looking anti-Zionists who only cared that the government provide them with money for their separate schools, welfare and exemptions from military service. These days, many of the Haredim - the word means "those who tremble" in awe of God" - have joined with right-wing religious Zionists to become a powerful political force.

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They now are equipped to redefine the country's politics and to set a new agenda.

Two decades ago, they were confined mostly to a few neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today, they have spread throughout the country, in substantial numbers in several major communities, as well as building completely new towns only for their followers.

One Haredi leader who almost won Jerusalem's mayoralty race last fall, boasts that, within 20 years, the ultra-Orthodox will control the municipal government of every city in the country. And why not? Of the Jewish Israeli children entering primary school for the first time this month, more than 25 per cent are Haredi, and that proportion will keep growing. There are between 600,000 and 700,000 Haredim in Israel, and they average 8.8 children a family.

A decade ago, there were almost no Haredim in the West Bank settlements. Today, the two largest settlements are entirely ultra-Orthodox, and the Haredim are about a third of the almost 300,000 settlers.

Now that they have tightened the rules on who can be a Jew and have forced the public bus company to provide gender-segregated buses in many communities, a discouraged secular community is starting to emigrate.

Nehemia Shtrasler, a business and political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote this summer that the country is risking destruction. "We will survive the conflict with the Palestinians and even the nuclear threats from Iran," he wrote. "But the increasing rupture between the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel will be the end of us." Mr. Shtrasler said: "It's a struggle between two contradictory worldviews that cannot exist side by side.

Will Israel adhere to its founding secular values or will it become a theocratic Jewish state?

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has been toiling for decades to make Israel a Halachic state (one that adheres to Jewish religious law). The former chief Sephardi rabbi (from 1983 to 1993) was one of five men who founded the Brit Hakanaim - the Covenant of Zealots - an underground organization of the early 1950s that attacked non-kosher butcher shops and torched cars that were driven on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Eliyahu was imprisoned for 10 months after an apparent plot to attack the Knesset was uncovered. He said at his trial that Israel was turning against God's will when it proposed a law to draft women into the military. Their place is in the home, he insisted, and still insists.

He was the spiritual adviser to Meir Kahane, founder of the racist Kach Party that was banned from the Knesset, and later outlawed completely when one of its members murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994. He has long urged the release from prison of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Rabbi Eliyahu had his greatest impact as spiritual leader of Israel's National Religious Party. He believed that the line separating the Orthodox from the Haredim was artificial and that many Haredim could be brought into the nationalist camp.

The rabbi has an exclusive view of who really is a Jew, having denounced Reform and Conservative synagogues as "reeking of hell." And he has often said that democracy has no place in Judaism.

SURPRISING MERGER

Rabbi Eliyahu and his followers have succeeded in tying the knot between Haredim and religious nationalists. There is even a new name for the new group, the Hardal, derived from Haredim and Mafdal (the acronym for the National Religious Party).

While the NRP has disappeared, the ideas and the name have grown. The powerful Shas Party, of Sephardi and Haredi disciples, is the best example.

Together, the Hardal are 20 per cent of the Jewish population, says Nachman Ben Yehuda, a sociologist at Hebrew University whose book on the Haredim, Theocratic Democracy , is to be published next year.

Such a merger is quite a feat, considering the anti-Zionist origins of the Haredim.

During the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, the first Haredi communities took shape, as an attempt to maintain distinctive Jewish communities when many Jews were being lured into liberal European culture. Haredi rabbis targeted, first, the Reform Jewish movement and, later, the Zionist movement, as abominations counter to God's will.

They opposed the creation of Israel, arguing that using the holy Hebrew language for daily discourse and having "unbelievers" proclaim a "Jewish state" were sacrilegious. Some insisted that the Zionist project brought down the wrath of God in the form of the Holocaust.

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