TEL AVIV, Israel - They came by night, wearing black hats and hauling trailers. And when Shimrit Orr's secular neighborhood awakened the next morning in the town of Pardes Hana, the new arrivals were parked on public land next to a sign proclaiming the establishment of a religious school.
That was last fall, and it was only the beginning.
Within days, fifteen homes were occupied by the newcomers, ultra-Orthodox Jews with strict ideas about how life should be lived. Then the signs went up: "Women should dress modestly." "No music on the Sabbath."
Violators were shouted down. Car tires were slashed. Stones were thrown. Secular residents struck back, posting signs and bringing in a samba band for a loud Sabbath serenade. Both sides hired lawyers and called for reinforcements.
As the volume rose, shouting gave way to shoving. Cabinet ministers and politicians intervened along with police, but the fight escalated. One ugly Tuesday night someone firebombed two of the trailers. A riot ensued.
"That's when we realized we were at war," said Orr, a pop music songwriter. "It was more than difficult. It was impossible."
Pardes Hana is an extreme example, but what occurred in the community north of Tel Aviv illustrates the most prominent and acrimonious split in Israeli society.
Peace activists battle hawks, Labor Party members trade insults with those of Likud, traditional Zionists oppose revisionist Zionists. Look closely and there is more: settler vs. nonsettler, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic Jew, native-born vs. immigrant, Ethiopian vs. Russian, the Jewish majority vs. the Arab minority, the haves vs. the have-nots.
While many divisions aren't new, a population that once set aside its differences for the common good has become more willing to act on them.
"The glue which in the '50s and '60s used to hold us together is now melting, and has been since the '70s," said sociologist Uri Ram, of Beersheva University. "What held it together was the conflict with the Arabs, and the other reason was a strong, efficient, productive and useful elite. There was a very strong process of nation-building."
With the nation built and its enemies at bay, Ram said, "all of the other conflicts came out in the open. It is a conflict of identity, and this is why it is so fierce, and even bloody, because it goes to the very roots of what kind of society we are."
But where some people see fierce conflict and all its hazards, others see healthy signs of pluralism, with all its seismic vitality.
The high cost of 'unity'
"There was a real price, a heavy price for the so-called unity in the past," said Aviezer Ravitzky, head of the department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University. "In the '50s, there was the secular, Ashkenazi, socialist Jew. [Then] there were three second-rate citizens - the religious, the Sephardim [Middle Eastern Jews] and the revisionist. And they had to adjust themselves to the role model of the Israeli.
Today, "you can be a prime minister despite the fact that you are not a socialist. You can be the minister of education despite the fact that you are not secular. You can be the vice prime minister despite the fact you are not Ashkenazi, or Western."
Both sides agree that Israeli society is far different from that envisioned by its founders, including David Ben-Gurion.
"There was a feeling as if Zionism of the state would create ... some sort of model of a new Jew," Ravitzky said.
And this new Jew would be mainly European and Ashkenazi in culture, but a man of the soil - working with his hands, yet active in his mind, sunburned and hardened by the elements, his hair blowing in the breeze and his wife working at his side. It was a departure from the image of the ghetto Jew, with black hat and curly locks, hunched over a scrivener's ledger or jeweler's workbench. The contrast was intentional. Those sorts of Jews were to become obsolete.
For Ben-Gurion, Ravitzky said, "The Halachic Jews or ultra-Jews, the yeshiva boys, belonged to our life in exile. But once we normalized ourselves and became a normal nation which dwells in its national territory and speaks its national tongue, [the ultra-Jews] will become marginalized."
But the religious Jews had their own assumptions about how the state's population would develop. They envisioned the secular side withering away. As Ravitzky said, "If you take the [ultra-Orthodox] Haredim, a secular Jew is an oxymoron."
The two sides, it turned out, would become the center of many debates. Each got a hint that neither would easily disappear when they sat down together, before statehood, to draw up election rules, said Shabtai Teveth, a Ben-Gurion biographer.