JERUSALEM – Bastet, a vegan and LGBT-friendly cafe whose blue tables spill across a central Jerusalem sidewalk, is a secular oasis for residents seeking Saturday refreshment in a city that largely comes to a standstill for the Jewish Sabbath.
But each week, a procession of ultra-Orthodox men, some in their finest fur hats and gold robes, invariably marches past in a show of displeasure at the cafe’s desecration of the day of rest. “Shabbos!” they chant, using the Yiddish word for the Sabbath.
On a recent Saturday, the wait staff struck back, lifting their shirts to reveal their bras in an attempt to push back the religiously conservative demonstrators.
The confrontation reflected a central tension in modern Israel over the very nature of the state, founded by secular Zionists but with an ultrareligious population that is growing in size and influence.
That tension came to the forefront late last month, thwarting longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government and sending a stunned nation to the polls for the second time this year. Netanyahu needed two competing factions, secular and religious, to form a governing majority in parliament, and they were deadlocked over legislation that proposes drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military as other Israeli Jews are.
The ultrareligious parties oppose conscription as an attempt to assimilate their cloistered communities by thrusting their young men into contact with secular life and values.
But Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s ultranationalist former defence minister, has made resistance to ultra-Orthodox influence an essential part of his appeal to his political base of secular Russian-speaking immigrants. Those close to him say the conscription issue is part of his wider concern about a minority community that receives state welfare payments and tax breaks while contributing less than other Israeli taxpayers.
It is a victoryMira Ibrahim, one of the staff who disrobed
The ultra-Orthodox, a catchall for a religious community that includes a wide range of sects, choose largely to segregate themselves from the wider Israeli society to lead a life in which religious observance is paramount. Outside influences, such as films, the Internet and mixing with secular Israelis is discouraged, if not forbidden.
But in Israel’s fragmented parliamentary democracy, the political parties representing the ultra-Orthodox have become kingmakers in recent years, elevating their agenda and carving a fault line in Israeli society that is expected to grow.
For Israelis like Klil Lifshitz, the 28-year-old lesbian who opened Bastet 2 1/2 years ago with a “super feminist” wait staff rather than decamp to liberal Tel Aviv as most of her friends had, the shrinking space for secularism is a concern.
“They have more and more power,” she said of the ultra-Orthodox. “As long as they keep having the power they do in forming coalitions and governments, they are basically going to get what they want.”
It was during an usually large demonstration last month, called by ultra-Orthodox Jews to protest what they termed Israel’s desecration of the Sabbath as the country hosted the Eurovision song contest, that the wait staff decided to make their own stand. They said the purpose was to protect their tables and make an ideological point.
Since then the ultra-Orthodox have paused their weekly walk past.
“It is a victory,” said Mira Ibrahim, one of the staff who decided to disrobe, though she said the sense of triumph was tinged by a heavy-handed police response to the demonstrators that made the staff uncomfortable.
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