Turf wars are hardly a rarity in Israel. But a new beef brewing in Tel Aviv is pitting Jew against Jew in the battle for the city’s secular soul. The conflict began two years ago when Chabad – a Brooklyn-based ultra-orthodox Jewish movement – opened an outreach centre in Tel Aviv’s posh Ramat Aviv district. A bastion of Israel’s secular, liberal elite, Ramat Aviv was a curious location for Chabad – a messianic, proselytizing sect with some 200,000 adherents and 3,500 institutions worldwide.
Since their arrival, the Chabadniks have done what they do best – actively encourage wayward Jews to return to the fold. But trouble began when their mission emerged more as a hostile take-over than kindly courtship. Non-religious men were badgered for not wearing traditional tefillin. Skin-baring girls were harassed for their immodest dress. And stridently secular symbols slowly became Chabad-ized as malls closed on the Sabbath, a cinema was converted into a Talmudic study centre and non-kosher restaurants came under attack.
“We think of these kinds of cultural conflicts [in Israel] as between pious Jerusalem and secular Tel Aviv, but most Israeli cities have substantial numbers of both kinds of Jews,” says David N Myers, Professor of Jewish History at UCLA in Los Angeles. “We’ve seen these exact sorts of battles in other Jewish settings, such as the US, when certain areas fear reaching a [religious] tipping point”.
Fear of reaching the tipping point is now galvanising Ramat Avivis themselves, who are fed up with their coercive co-religionists and have taken their anti-Chabad message straight to City Hall. Led by members of the Free Ramat Aviv association, they forced a reluctant Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai to finally weigh in on the situation at a hastily organised City Council meeting this week. His take: while Tel Aviv will remain open to all, the Chabniks have indeed proven “irritating” to their secular neighbours.
Chabad’s response has been characteristically solemn. Insisting most Ramat Aviv residents support their presence, they’ve branded both Huldai and secular activists – all Israeli Jews – “racists”, “anti-semites” and “Jew-haters”. Undeterred, Free Ramat Aviv members are planning protests next week in front of the Chabad House – the first in a series of upcoming contra-Chabad activities.
This is the second time in a month Mayor Huldai has found himself in the centre of anti-Orthodox furore. Early in May he lashed out against the separate Ultra-Orthodox education system, which prioritises Jewish and Torah study over conventional core subjects such as science, civics and English. Huldai characterised this parallel education stream as a threat to the very sanctity of the Israeli State and called upon his fellow citizens to loudly voice their concern. “Disillusionment and perhaps rebellion must emerge among the silent civilian majority, “ he implored, “which would restore Israeli democracy its right and ability to intervene and decide on those issues it holds dear.”
Despite the clear chasm between Tel Aviv’s sacred and profane, people such as Amichai Lai-Lavie, nephew of the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and founder of New York’s Storahtelling centre, suggests a middle ground can emerge, one where “religious traditions meet secular tolerance”. It’s a sentiment recently echoed by none other than moderate Kadima Party-leader and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who lamented her nation’s growing Jewish divide. Speaking out against “incitements” towards the Orthodox sector, the resoundingly secular Livni said Israelis must develop a common Jewish denominator. “Judaism is, after all,” she reminded, “the basis of the State’s existence.”