Some warn that Israel's secular lifestyle is in danger

Strains are escalating as the ultra-religious community grows at a much faster rate than the rest of Israel's Jewish society and exerts more control over the Jewish population's mainly secular lifestyle.

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TEL AVIV // Attempts by the ultra-Orthodox minority to impose a code of behaviour that includes separating men and women in public, on buses and on the streets have escalated tensions with Israel's secular majority to their highest in almost a decade.

The strains are escalating as the politically strong ultra-religious community grows at a much faster rate than the rest of Israel's Jewish society and exerts more control over the Jewish population's mainly secular lifestyle.

While most experts dismiss speculation of Israel losing its democratic character in favour of becoming a theocracy, some warn public policies will increasingly be set by the religious unless a powerful secular movement enters the political arena.

"We don't have a lot of time because of the high birth rates of the ultra-Orthodox," said Shahar Ilan, an executive for an Israeli organisation promoting religious tolerance. "They themselves are convinced that in several decades Israel will become a state ruled by Jewish law."

The ultra-Orthodox, known in Israel as Haredim - which refers in Hebrew to those fearful of God - are the most theologically rigid Jewish denomination.

They already make up some 10 per cent of the country's Jewish majority, and are expected to account for a fifth of it within three decades. Haredi families have an average of six or seven children as compared to two or three offspring for secular or moderately religious families. Furthermore, ultra-religious children already make up a third of all Jewish Israeli elementary school pupils.

Their political power has grown accordingly. In the past four decades, ultra-Orthodox parties have been in almost every governing coalition, and the number of seats they occupy in the 120-member parliament has almost tripled to 16 now.

The Haredim head the parliament's finance committee, its most important panel, and an ultra-Orthodox politician heads the interior ministry - a powerful post that decides on municipal budgets.

The Haredim have for years drawn bitterness from the secular majority by controlling personal issues such as// marriages, divorces, burials and conversions.

They have also attracted anger for being mostly exempt from compulsory army service and enjoying substantial state financial benefits.

The brewing tensions between the secular and the ultra-religious have exploded in recent weeks following media reports on Haredi attempts to discriminate against women at the small and increasingly religious town of Beit Shemesh west of Jerusalem.

Beit Shemesh, a town of 80,000 people, was last month thrown into the national spotlight after a television report showed how an eight-year-old girl was spat on and verbally abused by ultra-Orthodox men as she walked to school.

Just because she was not dressed modestly in their eyes.

The report followed several weeks of intensive news coverage on women being forced to sit in the back rows of buses designated for the ultra-Orthodox, and prompted thousands of Israelis to stage a rare protest against Haredi influence over their lifestyles.

Much of the tensions are due to the fact that because of their fast-growing numbers, ultra-Orthodox families are forced to expand beyond their secluded communities and into less religious areas in search of housing.

That integration, coupled with an increasing number of Haredi men and women joining the labour force, is spurring fears among radical ultra-Orthodox circles that liberal norms, such as internet use, may become more commonplace in their communities.

The re-emergence of the religious-secular strains may also be tied to a deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians. "When the peace process is dead, as it appears to be now, the public discourse focuses much more on internal issues," said Yair Sheleg, an Israeli expert on religious affairs.

While many ultra-Orthodox Israelis insist that extremists within their communities are responsible for controversial acts like gender segregation on buses, signs are emerging throughout Israel of attempts to impose religious restrictions.

Buses, credit card companies and other businesses have eliminated the images of women from their ads in Jerusalem after the ads were vandalised by ultra-Orthodox activists. In some Haredi neighbourhoods throughout the country, rabbis have demanded that separate hours be held for men and women at stores, libraries, doctors' offices, banks and other places. In Jerusalem, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men have blocked roads and hurled stones and rubbish bins at police in protest of parking lots, factories, restaurants and cinemas being open on Saturdays. At the public library of an increasingly Haredi town near Haifa, books by secular authors have been locked in a separate room with access to them sharply restricted.

This week, a performance by a women's choir at a hospital ceremony prompted Israel's ultra-Orthodox deputy health minister to leave in protest while another prominent rabbi reportedly averted his eyes away from the females by reading prayers on his mobile.

Analysts say that the backlash against the ultra-Orthodox is the biggest since 2003, when the new and aggressively secular Shinui party stunned the country by gaining 15 parliamentary seats in national elections. However, the victory was short-lived as the party disappeared by the next ballot in 2006.

Nevertheless, some polls show that such secularist political power could be resurrected. A survey released last week suggested that a new political party headed by Yair Lapid, a popular journalist and the son of Shinui's founder, could become the second biggest in parliament in the next elections should he choose to run.

Such a win, however, will not be easy to achieve. Pollsters say that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is also likely to prevail in the next election and he will have a hard time forming a sturdy ruling coalition without Haredi parties.

Without political changes, the ties appear likely to exacerbate between the ultra-religious and other Israeli Jews.