Israeli society could be torn apart if disputes between ultra-Orthodox and less observant Jews continue to heat up, Israel’s religious affairs minister said on Wednesday.
In a telephone interview, Yaacov Margy, who also serves as director-general of Shas, a religious party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, condemned an incident last month in which zealots seeking gender separation spat at a schoolgirl they accused of dressing immodestly.
That attack was disclosed by an Israeli television station, whose report on the violence stunned many in the Jewish state, where concerns over religious coercion are mounting among its mainly secular population.
Margy said such incidents and ultra-Orthodox protests – in the latest, on Saturday, children were dressed as Nazi Holocaust victims to suggest public persecution of the community – had been overblown in the media.
“If they ganged up on an 8-year-old girl, this is something that must be uprooted. We have a police force, courts – anyone who is violent must be dealt with. But we don’t have to go crazy,” he said.
Margy accused media outlets of fuelling the religious-secular dispute by covering in detail ultra-Orthodox protests.
“If we have a problem in Israeli society we should deal with it through dialogue,” he said. “I call on all people in the media and the extremists on both sides, crazy people: ‘climb down off the roof’.”
He said he feared that failure to do so “will tear Israeli society apart,” and pointed to banners at a recent secular demonstration where protesters voiced their fear that Israel could become like Islamist-ruled Iran.
“Every morning I go to look at the window and check whether I see some pro-Khomeini protest at my doorstep,” he said referring to the religious leader who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. “All I see are green fields, a good atmosphere and good neighbors.”
That view contrasts sharply with a cautionary note sounded last month by Israeli President Shimon Peres who said the country was in the grip of a battle for its soul…