Analysis: Secular and religious Jews are not at war

The 100,000-strong demonstration last Thursday supporting the fathers about to go to jail has been billed as the ultimate showdown between the secular state and the strictly Orthodox community.

Feelings have been inflamed for a while. The media and politicians have been ramping up the debate over the role of the Charedi sector for several months, following a number of reports on the community's growing share of the younger population and its lack of contribution to the national economy.

Speeches by Tel Aviv's Mayor Ron Huldai, TV star and presumptive politician Yair Lapid and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni served to further stoke the flames, as did the angry responses from Charedi politicians.

There seems little doubt that the future of secular-Orthodox relations will be a major issue in the next general elections, whenever they take place.

But at the same time, quietly behind the scenes, common ground is being found on many issues. While the Charedi rabbis adamantly oppose any outside interference in their education system, including a veto on the study of "core subjects" such as English and maths, more and more colleges are setting up programmes specifically designed to allow members of the community - men and women - to acquire a profession and an academic degree. This is happening with the tacit blessing of many senior rabbis.

At the same time, another taboo is quietly being overturned. Tens of thousands of young men studying in Charedi yeshivahs remain exempt from military service. But for the third year running, the IDF is enrolling thousands of yeshivah graduates in courses that train them for specialised roles in the airforce and intelligence corps.

They serve separately, away from women, are allowed ample time for prayer and study and eat only strictly kosher meals, but at the same time contribute to state defence and learn a profession.

More similar programmes are on the way in the IDF and soon in the police. They are a result of the growing realisation among the rabbis that the community is too large to be self-sustaining and that young families cannot go on living off stipends, social security and handouts.

There are leaders and politicians who want to make progress on both these parallel courses, of tension and accommodation. It is quietly likely that in the months and years to come we will see more acrimonious exchanges and protests in public, while in the background, cooperation will intensify and life will continue.

    Last updated: 12:56pm, June 25 2010

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