JERUSALEM – Bastet, a vegan and LGBT-friendly cafe whose blue tables spill across a central Jerusalem sidewalk, is a secular oasis for residents seeking Saturday refreshment in a city that largely comes to a standstill for the Jewish Sabbath.
But each week, a procession of ultra-Orthodox men, some in their finest fur hats and gold robes, invariably marches past in a show of displeasure at the cafe’s desecration of the day of rest. “Shabbos!” they chant, using the Yiddish word for the Sabbath.
On a recent Saturday, the wait staff struck back, lifting their shirts to reveal their bras in an attempt to push back the religiously conservative demonstrators.
The confrontation reflected a central tension in modern Israel over the very nature of the state, founded by secular Zionists but with an ultrareligious population that is growing in size and influence.
That tension came to the forefront late last month, thwarting longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government and sending a stunned nation to the polls for the second time this year. Netanyahu needed two competing factions, secular and religious, to form a governing majority in parliament, and they were deadlocked over legislation that proposes drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military as other Israeli Jews are.
The ultrareligious parties oppose conscription as an attempt to assimilate their cloistered communities by thrusting their young men into contact with secular life and values.
But Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s ultranationalist former defense minister, has made resistance to ultra-Orthodox influence an essential part of his appeal to his political base of secular Russian-speaking immigrants. Those close to him say the conscription issue is part of his wider concern about a minority community that receives state welfare payments and tax breaks while contributing less than other Israeli taxpayers.
The ultra-Orthodox, a catchall for a religious community that includes a wide range of sects, choose largely to segregate themselves from the wider Israeli society to lead a life in which religious observance is paramount. Outside influences, such as films, the Internet and mixing with secular Israelis is discouraged, if not forbidden.
But in Israel’s fragmented parliamentary democracy, the political parties representing the ultra-Orthodox have become kingmakers in recent years, elevating their agenda and carving a fault line in Israeli society that is expected to grow.
For Israelis like Klil Lifshitz, the 28-year-old lesbian who opened Bastet 2 1/2 years ago with a “super feminist” wait staff rather than decamp to liberal Tel Aviv as most of her friends had, the shrinking space for secularism is a concern.
“They have more and more power,” she said of the ultra-Orthodox. “As long as they keep having the power they do in forming coalitions and governments, they are basically going to get what they want.”
It was during an usually large demonstration last month, called by ultra-Orthodox Jews to protest what they termed Israel’s desecration of the Sabbath as the country hosted the Eurovision song contest, that the wait staff decided to make their own stand. They said the purpose was to protect their tables and make an ideological point.
Since then the ultra-Orthodox have paused their weekly walk past.
“It is a victory,” said Mira Ibrahim, one of the staff who decided to disrobe, though she said the sense of triumph was tinged by a heavy-handed police response to the demonstrators that made the staff uncomfortable.
But while the Bastet staff may have won a small reprieve, the wider battle is only expected to escalate. The ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, make up only 12 percent of the population but are the fastest-growing segment of Israelis, with women giving birth to an average of 6.9 children.
In the early days of the Israeli state, many of the ultra-Orthodox were opposed to the secular Zionist movement that created it, fearing it would eradicate their form of Judaism. Now, they are increasingly their power in Israel’s 120-member parliament, where they most recently won 16 seats, to promote and protect their interests, rather than shunning it.
And it’s not just the ultra-Orthodox who are pushing for Israel to be ruled by religious law. On Monday, Netanyahu rejected calls from his political ally Bezalel Smotrich, a religious – but not ultra-Orthodox – Jew, for the Israeli justice system to adhere to Jewish law.
“Israel will not be a halacha state,” Netanyahu tweeted, using the term for Jewish law based on the Talmud.
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A religious state is what Avraham Menkes, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, would like to see, and he sees conscription as a threat to the existence of his unique community. National service, he says, is a “melting pot” designed to take Israeli Jewish immigrants from a diverse mix of cultures across the world, and give them a uniform identity.
Menkes heads the Committee to Save the Torah World, a group that leads protests against efforts to draft his community members. He’s been jailed 10 times for his activism. On the wall of his Jerusalem apartment hangs a picture of a protest two years ago. A group of demonstrators sit huddled in the streets with their backs to the spray of a police water-cannon.
“I’m in there somewhere,” he said, explaining that he was huddling under the jacket of his black suit, part of the traditional ultra-Orthodox garb.
The issue of conscription came to the forefront in 2017, when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that exemptions from military service for the ultra-Orthodox were unlawful and asked the Knesset to draft a new, more equal law. (Most Jewish men in Israel are required to serve nearly three years, and Jewish women for two.)
Military exemptions for the Haredim have been around since the birth of Israel. In 1949, the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, granted them for 400 religious yeshiva students, because so many Jewish scholars had died in the Holocaust. Since then, numbers have ballooned.
The conscription issue has stoked the ire of many in the wider population who do not see these religious Jews as paying their way. Employment among ultra-Orthodox men is only about 50 percent; many prefer religious study. The government supports them with tax breaks and large welfare payments.
“Israelis who serve in the army and work hard for a living say they are parasites and live off the money they get from the government, and it’s our taxes being used for that,” said Carlo Strenger, a professor of philosophy and psychology at Tel Aviv University who has warned that Israel is being torn apart by such fear and resentment. He argues that a federative structure, which gives both the ultra-Orthodox and Israel’s Arab citizens a way to live without feeling imperiled, may be the answer.
Liberman put a priority on passing the new draft law, which sets conscription quotas for the ultra-Orthodox and fines religious schools that do not meet them.
Aryeh Vishnevetsky, a spokesman for Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, said that equal treatment is a matter of principle. He said that’s why the party has also demanded that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts scrap a requirement that some Russian immigrants take DNA tests to prove their Jewish heritage. These concerns are part of the wider aim of resisting ultra-Orthodox demands that encroach on secular life, such as requiring that supermarkets close on the Sabbath, according to those close to Liberman.
But they say they’re not trying to change how the religious lead their lives.
“We don’t want to turn anyone into a secular person,” Vishnevetsky said, adding that it’s easier for Haredim to find work after national service.
In Menkes’s telling, however, all young Haredim who are drafted lose their religion. Most recently it was his nephew, who took off his kippah, or Jewish head covering, after serving in the military. “He went to the military as a Haredi,” he explained. “And now he says he discovered the world.”
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At a corner store a few hundred yards down the road in the Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood of Jerusalem, Haim, 26, recounted how he had served in the military against the wishes of his ultra-Orthodox family.
Although he still wears a black kippah and the standard black-and-white uniform of the Haredim, he said he was in fact now an atheist. Haim, whose family name is being withheld so he could speak candidly about his religious beliefs, said he had become increasingly secular in his thinking even before joining the military.
But, he said, for many ultra-Orthodox who are looking for a way out, it provides one.
“It’s a gate to go out from the community. The rabbis here are afraid people will connect with people from the outside,” he said. “The army is one of these places. They mix with secular people.”
Haim finished serving in the military a year and a half ago and recently moved home for “economic reasons.” Finding employment can be difficult for those who leave the community, because their schooling is focused on religious studies. His family allowed him to return with certain conditions, he said. These included how he dressed.
Haim said that many in his neighborhood are angry with Liberman. They blame him for sparking a religious row in pursuit of power or a personal vendetta against Netanyahu.
But after Liberman’s stand on conscription, Haim said he is now considering voting for him.
While many outside Israel see its conflict with the Palestinians as the country’s defining struggle, Haim said he sees the clash between his two worlds – religious and secular – as the most fateful and sure to escalate in the future, as the ultra-Orthodox population grows.
He predicted that Israel will reach a tipping point when the balance between the Jewish communities will no longer be sustainable, and secular Jews would then begin leaving Israel because it had grown so restrictive.
“At some point it will break,” he warned.