THE burning of a synagogue in Jerusalem, apparently perpetrated by militant ultra-Orthodox Jews, has sent shockwaves through Israel's secular majority - prompting talk of a "War of the Jews".
Nobody was hurt in last week's arson raid on Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot synagogue, which belongs to the "Conservative" stream of Judaism. But the incident has evoked images of Holocaust-era attacks and led to fears that Jewish fundamentalists are increasingly mimicking the violent behavior more common among their counterparts in the Islamic world.
The attack was the gravest in a series of "Jew-on-Jew" incidents. Opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis now think the "internal" Jewish fundamentalist threat will soon be as dangerous as the "external" Arab one. Fears are rising that, once the peace process with the Palestinians is over, widespread violence and possibly even civil war could break out between Israeli Jews.
Strictly Orthodox Jews see Reform and Conservative Judaism - the movements to which most of the world's Jews, especially in America, adhere to - as watered down versions that pose a threat to their way of life by offering alternative, more liberal forms of the religion.
Although the culprits responsible for the latest attack have yet to be caught, there seems little doubt that it was the work of ultra-Orthodox fanatics. Witnesses reported seeing men in traditional religious dress fleeing as the flames raged.
One long-standing member of the synagogue's congregation said: "This conjures up images of the Nazis - only it is happening in Israel and the perpetrators are Jews. If there is one evil that you wouldn't expect to find in a Jewish state, it is anti-Semitic violence.
"It must seem bizarre to Gentiles that, after surviving 2,000 years of persecution at the hands of others, and with peace with the Palestinians just around the corner, the Jews are now turning on each other."
The atmosphere in Jerusalem has deteriorated following the attack. On Tuesday, several dozen Reform Jews from Florida needed an equal number of policemen to protect them when they held a prayer service at the Western ("Wailing") Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Some women at the service wore skullcaps and prayer shawls to the fury of nearby ultra-Orthodox worshippers who believe that only men should wear such religious attire.
The arson raid was the second on Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot in less than a month. Three weeks earlier, the front door of the synagogue, which had just been renovated, was set alight and one of its walls daubed with threatening graffiti. Public anger was expressed over the apparent reluctance among politicians to condemn that attack. They were accused of being fearful of alienating ultra-Orthodox voters.
The head of the Conservative movement in Israel, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said: "The lack of response by the authorities sent a signal to the extremists that, in the Jewish state, you can set fire to synagogues, and it's back to business as usual. Had the attack occurred elsewhere in the world, Israeli officials would have taken great pains to condemn it."
Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, who failed to speak out following the first attack, made a point of condemning the latest arson. But Mr Olmert, a secular politician who relies on ultra-Orthodox parties to maintain power in his governing municipal coalition, refrained from calling it a hate crime or identifying a group that might be responsible.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, one of Israel's leading clerics, also condemned the second attack, but disappointed Conservative leaders by referring to Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot as a "building" rather than a synagogue. Some ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset (parliament) failed to condemn the attack at all - even suggesting that the Conservatives had set fire to their own synagogue in order to "besmirch the religious public in Israel".
Hadas Bregman, a 29-year-old secular Jewish woman, said: "We are approaching exploding point. I am all for 'live and let live', but it seems they are not." Among recent decrees by ultra-Orthodox leaders in Jerusalem is one forbidding women from using mobile phones in public - "for fear that it might lead to prostitution".
Modern Israel was founded in 1948 as a secular state. The name of God was deliberately excluded from its declaration of independence. Yet it has been undergoing a process of increasing theocratisation in recent years. A high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox, who did not recognise the state at first and played little part in its politics, has increased their influence recently.
In addition, Israel's liberal form of proportional representation has given small religious parties disproportionate bargaining power. Many secular Israelis came close to despair last month when the ultra-Orthodox Shas party succeeded in pressurising the prime minister, Ehud Barak, into ousting the secular Meretz party from the governing coalition.
"Are we living in a democracy or in Iran?" asked Miss Bregman, who voted for an even more staunchly secular party, Shinui, in last year's general election. The party was formed only weeks before the poll, yet gained six seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Its leader, Tommy Lapid, denounced Orthodox Judaism as being "one big voodoo".
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