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Culture war targets ultra-Orthodox Jews

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 7:55 p.m. MDT

"The body that is responsible for funding children is called their parents," he said.

Lapid's deputy, Mickey Levy, appeared on an ultra-Orthodox radio station on Wednesday in hopes of smoothing over relations with the religious. But when the interview became tense, Levy called ultra-Orthodox Jews "parasites."

Levy immediately apologized and said he had suffered a slip of the tongue in a heated moment.

Israel's mainstream media has largely supported Lapid, a former newspaper columnist and TV talk show host.

"How long have we waited for a finance minister in the Israeli government to stand up and tell those dignified parliament members that they no longer hold the reins to the state of Israel," Yael Paz-Melamed wrote in the daily Maariv. A Haaretz editorial cartoon depicted ultra-Orthodox lawmakers bandaged and bruised from the political browbeating.

Religious lawmakers accused Lapid of inciting against them.

"Since the January elections, new politics have brought unprecedented displays of hatred and polarization," Arieh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Thursday. "As elected public officials, it is our duty to unite the nation, not divide it."

For now, however, the tide seems to have turned against the religious.

In recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime ally of the religious, gave preliminary support to a plan to break the Orthodox monopoly at the Western Wall, said Benjamin Rutland, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body drafting the plan.

The proposal calls for building a section for mixed gender prayers. Under Orthodox customs, men and women pray separately.

On Thursday, a Jerusalem court ruled that police should stop arresting members of a liberal women's Jewish prayer group for praying at the wall wearing religious garb that Orthodox Judaism permits for men only.

The ultra-Orthodox have shown signs of bowing to the pressure. A front-page notice published in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman called on religious studies students to cooperate with military draft notices and report to draft centers, but not to sign any commitments to military service while negotiations are under way.

Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the ultra-Orthodox seem doomed in the short term. "They lost a lot of power and a lot of influence because they are not in the government anymore," he said.

But in the long run, he said the ultra-Orthodox will likely bounce back as they figure out a way to work with Lapid, who sees himself as a future prime minister. He also said the hostile rhetoric against the religious could backfire if the atmosphere turns too toxic.

Meir Porush, a prominent ultra-Orthodox politician, predicted that Yesh Atid would suffer the same fate as Shinui, the secular-rights party led by Lapid's father, Joseph, a decade ago. Shinui captured 15 parliamentary seats in 2003 elections, making it one of the largest factions in parliament, only to flame out within three years.

"Shinui had 15 seats and disappeared after one term," Porush told Army Radio. "I think the same might be for Yair because there is no way that the hatred between religious and secular can be maintained for a long time."

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