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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pork Feeds Religious-Secular Tension in Israel

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel -- Bringing home the bacon has taken on a new meaning in Beit Shemesh, an Israeli town that has become the latest battleground in a decades-old religious conflict between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

This time the religious infighting is over pig meat and whether six Beit Shemesh delicatessen stores owned by Russian immigrants can sell pork and other nonkosher products considered unclean by Jewish law and abhorrent to the devout.

"They are making the whole neighborhood filthy with their pig," shrieked a religious woman at a hardware store on Rabin Street where most of the nonkosher delicatessen stores are located in a mixed religious-secular part of Beit Shemesh.

Ultra-religious residents, backed by the city council, have passed a bylaw banning the sale of pig meat in Beit Shemesh and demanding that nonkosher shops move to an industrial zone where the owners say they will have few customers and face bankruptcy.

Israel's Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction on the bylaw until it rules on its legality, probably in January.

The court's decision could raise secular-religious tensions over whether what the Orthodox regard as the laws of God take precedence over those of man.

It's a decades-old argument in the 53-year-old country that has become even more intense since the immigration of around one million Russians to Israel in the past decade. Many of the Russians, who have only a meager knowledge of Judaism, have brought their fondness for pork with them.

Some 25 percent of them do not meet the ritual definition of being Jewish. Israel's Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, is not as rigid and accepts immigrants who can claim one Jewish grandparent.

"The Russians pose a threat to the way the ultra-Orthodox perceive Jewish identity in the Jewish state," said Menachem Hofnung, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Beit Shemesh, 20 kilometers from Jerusalem, is a microcosm of the fight across Israel -- over whether streets in religious areas should be shut to traffic on the Sabbath, cinemas allowed to open on holy days and shops and restaurants permitted to sell what Israelis call "white meat," or pork.

The pork battle in Beit Shemesh is a high-stakes game for secular Israelis who fear defeat will set a dangerous precedent across the country and motivate the ultra-Orthodox to push for more religious laws in parliament and city councils.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel's population, but their power has grown in a politically fractured country established by socialist Jews -- many of them atheists or anti-religious -- more than 50 years ago.

The fight has bewildered Beit Shemesh's Russian immigrants, who prefer a taste of the old country in their new land. They read Russian-language newspapers, attend Russian theater and send their children to a Russian-run school.

Slicing a piece of ham, shopkeeper Alexander Rosonov said selling pork is a matter of principle.

"There is almost no difference between what the communists did in Russia and what the ultra-Orthodox are doing here," said Rosonov, who moved to Israel from St. Petersburg five years ago.

"In fact, here it is worse because in Russia they just told us what to read and what to watch on television. But here they tell us what to eat, how to sleep with our wives and where to send our children to school," Rosonov said.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews consider the state of Israel an abomination because it is not based on Jewish law. They don't stand to attention on memorial days marking Israel's war dead because they don't recognize the state, and refuse to perform compulsory military service.

But holding the balance of power in successive governments has enabled the ultra-Orthodox to funnel money to their religious institutions and subsidize housing projects exclusively for their communities.

Secular Israelis call it religious coercion. "We are talking about freedom for people who want to continue the religious tradition in a positive atmosphere," said Devora, an American-born ultra-religious woman in Beit Shemesh.

There is enormous resentment among secular Israelis.

"The [ultra-Orthodox] stole our country that used to be a social-democracy where religion played a tiny part," said Tzvi, a secular Beit Shemesh resident. "If they had guns, we would call them the Taliban."

For many of the Russian immigrants, who learned little about their Jewish heritage during the Soviet era, pork is a tasty meat like any other and they are baffled by the fuss.

"We are living in the 21st century. You can't tell people to observe primitive laws from centuries ago, from the Torah [Old Testament]," said Anna, a Russian woman standing in a line at a Russian delicatessen. "We're an advanced civilization now."