2016-07-27
JERUSALEM, Feb. 2 (RNS) -- When Dina Bartuv, a 24-year-old economist from Israel's northern Galilee region, attended a massive rally here recently protesting peace process concessions on Jerusalem's holy sites, she came as a religious Jew and a member of a younger Israeli generation that can't even remember when the city was divided.

"I grew up on the assumption that this was one city," Bartuv said. "Now, all of a sudden they are talking about giving up Jerusalem, and everything that we achieved. Why then, did people fight for all of these years. Why did Jews pray for 2,000 years for Jerusalem and dream of returning here. If we give up Jerusalem, our most holy place, what do we have left?"

Religious Israeli Jews like Bartuv, deeply angry about the recent negotiations over Jerusalem, are expected to play a critical role in bringing opposition leader Ariel Sharon to a probable victory in Tuesday's upcoming Israeli elections.

Labor government Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while going further than any Israeli leader in history to reach an agreement with Palestinians, has also alienated Israel's Orthodox Jewish community more profoundly than anyone before him.

Their opposition to him goes beyond whatever feelings they may also have that his policies are either the cause of four-months of Palestinian violence against Israeli targets, or the reason Israeli security forces have not been able to better protect Israeli Jews, nearly 50 of whom have been killed, compared to more than 300 Palestinians.

The violence began in September following a visit by Sharon to the Temple Mount, a visit Palestinians say was a provocation -- and religious Israeli Jews was within his legal and religious rights.

The sense of anger and betrayal reaches across the spectrum, from the ultra-Orthodox sects, for whom tradition is a more important driving force than the trappings of statehood, to the religious nationalists and even the religiously moderate Meimad Party, which is part of Barak's own government coalition.

"When Barak was elected two years ago, he represented himself as the middle ground," said Nadav Shragai, who reports on Israel's Orthodox communities for the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "Now, he has become more left wing than the dovish Meretz Party. He agreed to give up the Jordan Valley. He agreed to some sort of new arrangement on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and to a division of Jerusalem.

For religious nationalists like Bartuv, there is a deep religious symbolism attached to the idea Israel might relinquish its most holy shrine, the Temple Mount, site of two biblical-era Jewish temples that in their time were the physical core of Jewish religious life.

"Religiously," she asserts, "I believe that it would lead to a war."

For the black-coated ultra-Orthodox, there is a more practical fear that the daily pilgrimage to prayers at the Western Wall -- a remnant of the temples' retaining walls -- may become a gauntlet if large sections of Jerusalem's Old City are placed under Palestinian rule. The Palestinian security forces are perceived as weak and unable to guarantee Israel's security even in the event of a peace agreement.

"No one is interested in navigating an obstacle course to get to the Western Wall," said Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox commentator. "And Barak's plan to divide Jerusalem would transform quite a few of the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods into front-line battlegrounds.

"Barak has broken all the red lines of the religious sector. And they have taken it very personally," he added. "That was evident in the turnout at the recent rally on the Jerusalem issue, which generated a turnout of some 300,000 to 350,000 persons, most of them Orthodox."

The Jerusalem issue, as it is called here, raises different concerns for different parts of the religious public.

"The ultra-Orthodox community, unlike religious nationalists, doesn't necessarily think that on a theological level, Israel has to have sovereignty over the Temple Mount," he added. "Still, at the same time, it's quite clear that relinquishing sovereignty over the Temple Mount would be a very potent symbol. It would be seen as a statement that the past has become irrelevant to us.

"And for those of us to see the central problem confronting Israel today as a lack of national morale, giving back the Temple Mount would destroy, not the ultra-Orthodox, but secular Israel," he said.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community are also troubled by a deeper breach of trust by Barak, according to Shahar Ilan, author of a recent book on the ultra-Orthodox community, "Haredim, Ltd."

"One of the big problems is that the religious public feels that Barak just doesn't care," Ilan said. "The concessions that have been discussed don't hurt him enough. Jerusalem isn't important to him and his government. In a sense, for concessions over Jerusalem to win the support of a wide sector of the Israeli public, they may have to be negotiated by a right-wing government."

Adding to the mistrust among Orthodox Israelis, is the fact that Barak has advocated greater secularization of Israeli civil society, both during his term in office and in the recent election campaign. He has spoken on behalf of opening up more businesses and public transportation on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, and he has promoted the idea of drafting into the military ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, anathema to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Barak has also lost the confidence of his all-powerful Shas Party patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's largest Orthodox sector, Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origins.

Yosef is widely viewed as a dovish rabbinical figure who would be willing to make territorial concessions in order to achieve a real peace. After Barak was elected, Shas initially joined Barak's cabinet and even underwent a painful reorganization in order to fulfill demands by Barak's secular allies for greater financial transparency in Shas organizations.

But Shas wasn't repaid with the same political coin.

At a crucial moment, Barak failed to support a financial bailout of the financially troubled Shas school system, a cornerstone of the party's existence.

Given its deep sense of betrayal, Shas has already called upon its supporters to support the Sharon campaign.

Other ultra-Orthodox rabbis, however, are waiting for the last minute to throw their weight behind the opposition leader's campaign.

That reticence reflects not only the large lead that Sharon already wields, but also the mixed feelings in the religious camp over the unpredictable former army general, best known to the world for his military record in Lebanon.

"The right isn't so excited about Sharon's candidacy," said Ilan. "Sharon is seen as someone who is very secular. He doesn't keep kosher. He publicly desecrates the Jewish Sabbath. The ultra-Orthodox will vote mainly against Barak, and not in favor of Sharon.

"But he is also seen as a kind of biblical-style Israeli hero. Some compare him to Ehud Ben Gera, one of the first biblical judges, who entered the palace of the King of Moab, took out his sword and stabbed it into his stomach -- all the way to the hilt."

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