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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man leans on a railing as a woman and children wait at a bus station in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, Dec 26, Israel seems to be at war with itself. For two weeks the Hebrew media have been dominated by street clashes between Jews arguing viciously over such matters as sleeve length and bus seating, which in the Israel of the moment are markers for the kind of country people want: Religious, or secular, or what balance of the two? Known in Hebrew as Haredim, which roughly translates as God-fearing, ultra-Orthodox men are easily recognized by their signature black clothes and headgear either wide-brimmed black felt or brimless beaver skin their side locks and their agitation at being seated near women.
Which brings us to a second locus of controversy: Buses segregated by gender. On bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox communities, women ride in the back. Most do so quite happily, but a ruckus often ensues when an outsider climbs aboard and insists on taking a seat up front with the men, as a woman named Doron Matalon did last week. In the shorthand biography of news accounts, the suspect proved representative of his cohort: Fuchs is 45, has 12 children, and no paying job.
Instead he studies scripture all day at a yeshiva, or religious college, which entitles him to welfare payments and excuses him from military service. These are sore points for the many Israelis who pay taxes and are compelled to serve in the army, an essential obligation of citizenship here. Recent efforts to draw the Ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces have produced some successes, but also a new platform for tension.
Israeli women famously also serve in the IDF Doron Matalon was in uniform when she took her seat at the front of the bus and in recent weeks Haredi soldiers made headlines by walking out when their sisters in arms sang at group morale-building events, such as the lighting of Hanukah candles. Erupting within days of one another, these cascading controversies have Israelis questioning the nature of the Jewish State, 63 years after independence.
There are almost as many definitions of Jewishness as there are Jews in Israel about six million in a population of seven million-plus, the balance mostly being Arabs. And the numbers will surely grow.