Religious divide widens in Israel After Rabin slaying: Arrests of seven religious men in the plot to kill the prime minister highlight the antagonism between Israel's secular and religious Jews as never before.

November 14, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Joshua Brilliant contributed to this article.

TEL AVIV, Israel -- When Cliff Felig asked a co-worker in his office if he wanted to go together to a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, the man blanched.

He noted Mr. Felig's yarmulke, the sign of a religiously observant Jew, and said "he didn't want to stand next to me -- I'd be a target," recalled the 34-year-old lawyer.

From nervous office jokes to death threats, there is increased antagonism between secular and religious Jews in Israel after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin 10 days ago.

"Religious people are very, very nervous," said Mr. Felig's wife, Minna, 33.

There has long been tension between secular Israelis, who support the government's civil rule, and those religious Israelis whose allegiance is to the words of their rabbis.

That tension has been heightened by the arrests of seven religious men in the plot to kill Mr. Rabin, and by reports that the assassin may have gotten approval from a rabbi to do the act.

A West Bank rabbi, who named other rabbis as having justified the assassination from a religious point of view, yesterday was placed under protective guard by police with submachine guns because he received death threats. Two of the rabbis he named denied that they had sanctioned the killing.

Attempts to calm relations between secular and religious Israelis may have been further clouded by a supreme court ruling Sunday. The ruling, which erodes the power of Orthodox Rabbis over Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism, is bound to bring the divisions boiling into the political arena.

In an attempt to heal the country, Interim Prime Minister Shimon Peres hopes to add religious political parties to the narrow majority of the government coalition.

But religious leaders said yesterday that they will demand a rollback of the court decision as the price of their participation, a demand that will anger secular liberals.

"The first demand in every negotiation will be a change" in the court ruling, said Avraham Ravitz, who represents the United Tora Judaism Party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

"All we need now after they break the law, murder a prime minister and set up a new 'underground' is for them to undermine the High Court of Justice," said Ran Cohen, who leads the liberal Meretz Party in parliament. He was referring to religious extremists.

"This is definitely another complication to the negotiations," Nissim Zvilli, chairman of the Labor Party, said of the court ruling.

The religious-secular split has troubled Israel since its inception. The most extreme religious refuse to recognize the authority of government, saying they answer only to God's rule. Today, about 25 percent of Israelis define themselves as religious.

The large group of "nationalist religious" Israelis, which includes many of the 125,000 Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, generally accept government rule. But they were adamantly opposed to the Rabin government's efforts to turn back the land to Palestinians. They argue God gave Jews all of the land.

Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old religious university law student, told a judge he killed Mr. Rabin because the prime minister was endangering the Jewish people by the peace process. He said he did it "on instructions from God."

"This is religious fundamentalism -- the view that there is only one truth and it is ours, and there is no way we will allow a different point of view," said Rabbi Uri Regev, of the liberal Reform Movement.

"There is no question that following the assassination, there is a sort of blanket resentment of religious extremism, and the general public doesn't always distinguish between fanatics and

the mainstream religious," he said.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of Interfaith Relations at the Anti-Defamation League, argues Israelis do make that distinction. "I think in the wake of Rabin's assassination, the feeling is not anti-religious, but there is a strong feeling of hostility toward the religious national elements that produced this kind of fanaticism," he said.

There are signs the blame is being laid more widely. Leah Rabin, the wife of the assassinated leader, has castigated the government's opponents, from Knesset members to the protesters at her home.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has received death threats in recent weeks, according to police. As leader of the Likud coalition, the main opposition group, he has appealed to nationalist religious groups for support.

He and Mr. Peres met yesterday to pledge to reduce the divisiveness in the country. But Mr. Peres, too, had pointed a finger of blame toward the religious.

"We have to prevent killers invoking the name of God while they are really the devil's emissaries," he said.

The public's resentment is likely to increase if rabbis are found culpable. One of the men arrested, Avishai Ravav, suggested a rabbinical ruling had sanctioned the assassination.

"They conferred with their rabbis. They convinced themselves that something like that [the killing] should happen," Economics Minister Yossi Beilin said yesterday.

A West Bank rabbi, Yoel Bin-Nun, is being guarded by plainclothes police at the settlement of Ofra. He said he had received death threats after promising to name other settler rabbis who had sanctioned the killing.

One rabbi, Nahon Rabinovitz, denied reports he had done that. "I always warned against violence," he told Israel Radio, "especially in the recent political times when the rift among people has become very deep and very painful."

But the daily Hebrew paper Davar Rishon set the prevailing tone in its editorial yesterday, saying "the inciting rabbis are not above the law. If anyone needs to rend his clothes over the murder of Prime Minister Rabin, it is first and foremost the nationalist religious public, including its rabbis and leaders," the paper said.

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