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 neighbours.
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.
BACK OF THE BUS
An emotional national debate has been raging over issues such attempts to segregate sidewalks in areas where devout Jews live and back-of-the-bus seating for women on public buses that ply religious neighbourhoods and which are patronised by ultra-Orthodox passengers.
Turning to coalition politics in which his Shas party has traditionally been a king-maker, Margy said he was very disappointed in Netanyahu's right-wing government, where a major partner has promoted contentious legislation governing marriage.
The bill introduced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party would give Israelis a freer hand at choosing rabbis to register them for marriage.
Jewish marriage in Israel is administered by Orthodox rabbis, whose refusal to register mixed couples poses difficulties for Yisrael Beitenu's considerable Russian immigrant constituency, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.
Nobody expects the Jewish state to permit mixed marriages, Margy said.
With 11 lawmakers in Netanyahu's 66-member coalition, Shas has enough sway to stand up and be heard as it helps assure the government of majority support in Israel's 120-seat legislature.
The next parliamentary election is not due until 2013, but Netanyahu has scheduled an early Likud leadership ballot for January 31, raising speculation the date of a national vote might be brought forward.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller)