To Tommy Lapid, the inanities committed by Israeli Jews in the name of religion are many--kosher toilet paper, for one.

So this spring, he ran a political campaign bashing ultra-Orthodox Jews and heaping sarcasm on the kosher seals of approval they affix not only to food but to toilet paper, fabric softener, shampoo, soap and dog food.

Religious Jews called his campaign vicious antisemitism. But many secular Israelis didn't seem to mind. They elected Lapid to parliament and, overnight, made his party a force on Israel's political scene.

"I won the elections," says Lapid, his self-satisfied Archie Bunker mug beaming at his own victory. In his Tel Aviv apartment, a half-dozen congratulatory bouquets are fragrant evidence of his sudden success.

At 67, Lapid is the new bad boy of Israeli politics, an atheist, nationalist, former television talking head who declared war on black-hatted, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Railing against their "medieval," anti-democratic ways, special privileges and raids on the public trough, his Shinui Party came from nowhere to control a mid-size bloc in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Many Israelis regard the ultra-Orthodox as fundamentalists itching to create an Iranian-style theocracy in the Jewish state. The deepest gulf in Israeli society today is not between hawks and doves. With the vast majority of Israelis resigned to the likelihood of a Palestinian state, perhaps in the coming months, the real split in Israel--and the real hatred--is between devoutly religious and secular Jews. "They are a museum piece from the Jewish shtetl from 100 and 200 and 300 years ago, from the ghettos of Lodz and Casablanca," says Lapid. "There is a place for them as long as they don't interfere with the normal life of a secular, open democratic country and don't try to impose medieval laws on modern people."

To the ultra-Orthodox, Lapid is the enemy. That he is Jewish himself is irrelevant. It's his methods, not his roots, that are familiar.

"Tommy Lapid is running a redneck movement," says Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox political party with five seats in the 120-member Knesset--one less than Lapid commands. "It's the same movement we've seen before. It's fascism and racism and using a lot of bluff and a lot of lies. I would think in a modern country today he would have to sit in jail. The whole culture of this guy is really terrible for Israel."

Squaring Off

It is a fraternal fight, and like most fraternal fights it is brutal. The battlegrounds are ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and streets in Jerusalem that religious Jews close off to all traffic on the Sabbath; restaurants, stores and shopping centers that insist on staying open on Saturday; government bureaucracies that decide who qualifies as a Jew and who may reside, marry and be buried in Israel; and the country's highest courts, which judge religious and nonreligious Israelis alike with secular laws, not Torah scrolls.

Each camp stereotypes the other. And while the stereotypes are cartoonish, they contain kernels of truth. To the ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews eat ham sandwiches, wear halter tops (for girls) and earrings (for guys), ignore the High Holy Days and spend weekends at the beach.

To the secular, the ultra-Orthodox wear costumes from 17th-century Poland (fur hats in summer!), send their kids to schools where they study religious texts and little else, cloister away their women and have arranged marriages at age 16. The clash is also demographic: Secular families tend to be small, while in ultra-Orthodox households, eight or 10 children is not unusual. These two worlds do not meet.

It is a contest, on the deepest level, not only about streets and laws and birthrates, but about what kind of state Israel is and will be: Western, secular and democratic, or Middle Eastern, religious and theocratic. Put another way: Will the politicians run the country, or will the rabbis?

Lapid is determined it will be the politicians.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews "don't send their kids to the army, they keep thousands of them in the yeshivas [Jewish seminaries] without work," he says, marshaling a polemicist's arguments, point by point, paragraph by paragraph. "They misuse their women--we could go into a million things. . . . This is the most repressive society in the Western world . . . .

"They are part of the global phenomenon of the poor and the uneducated turning toward fundamentalist religion. . . . They abhor modernism, technology. They're afraid of it, thinking it will destroy their beliefs. They think that in faith they can find the solution for social and economic problems."

Lapid's anti-religious riffs, and especially his strident campaign advertisements, have made him the object of intense hatred. The religious see him as a Jewish antisemite, a Nazi, an agent provocateur. He has, he says, received dozens of death threats. Police have arrested three men who threatened him, two by e-mail and one by phone. He does not leave home without a passel of bodyguards.

Once, campaigning in Jerusalem this spring, surrounded by a ring of five bodyguards, he found himself encircled by a broader band of hostile, hooting ultra-Orthodox men "dancing like dervishes," he says.

"My daughter is a psychologist, she warned me against running," says Lapid in his fluent, Hungarian-accented English. "She was worried about my health, the stress. The fact that I ended up with five security men surrounding me whenever I left my house was not on her mind."

The Man Behind the Politician

Born in 1931, Yosef Tommy Lapid grew up as Tomislav Lampel in the northern Yugoslavian town of Novi Sad, near the Hungarian border. His father, a prominent lawyer and journalist, was killed by the Nazis in the Mauthausen concentration camp. With his mother, Lapid survived the war in Budapest's Jewish ghetto. In a basement there, near the war's end, he celebrated his bar mitzvah.

With thousands of other Yugoslavian Jews, he emigrated to Israel in 1948, the year of the country's birth. He changed his name to the more Israeli-sounding Lapid, served in the army, studied law. His family had not been particularly religious, and the Holocaust made him a convinced atheist: What God could permit Auschwitz?

In time, he became one of Israel's most recognized journalists and authors, and eventually one of its best-known faces. In the 1970s, his travel guides to Europe, written in Hebrew, gave the name Lapid the same cachet in Israel as Michelin in France or Fodor's in America. For many years a hard-liner, he was handpicked by the right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, as director general of Israeli TV and radio.

He is, in most ways, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. A prize-winning journalist and commentator, he speaks seven languages, has written 10 books and two plays and is married to a best-selling novelist, Shulamit. He was managing editor of one of Israel's biggest newspapers, Maariv, and its chief editorial writer.

In his columns and broadcasts, he was provocative, politically incorrect and occasionally chauvinist. Amid a wave of terror attacks in 1996, he suggested that Palestinians "would begin to think" twice if Israel were to carry out revenge car bomb attacks in the West Bank "and kill 500 Palestinians." He scoffed at affirmative action for hiring women, and said the plight of battered women in Israel had been exaggerated.

Still, to many Israelis he is better known as a pugnacious fixture of the prime-time, high-volume political talk show "Popolitika." In the flat two-dimensionality of television debate, viewers see a slightly different Lapid--predatory, acid-tongued, sardonic.

"The show is like Israelis themselves," says Lapid, slightly stung at the suggestion that the show is a forum for high-decibel, simultaneous monologues. "It's politically active, intellectually alive and, mannerwise, very rude. All this coalesced in a TV program that reflects our minds and manners."

It was also a first-rate political springboard.

In March, Lapid was approached by an obscure splinter party with little clout and no prospects in the parliamentary elections that were approaching fast. The pitch was simple. A poll showed that a party headed by Lapid could win three or four seats. Was Lapid interested in taking over the party known as Shinui, or Change?

He was.

Stirring Up Strong Feelings

So at an age when most men have retired, Lapid began a political career. He ran for the Knesset on a single issue: shrinking the subsidies and influence of the ultra-Orthodox, whose clout had grown enormously under the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. He attacked the ultra-Orthodox for shunning American Conservative and Reform Jews, thereby splitting the Jewish people and alienating Israel's most important ally. He promised to fight what he called religious coercion--rules governing food, marriage, commerce and public transport.

His campaign tapped into secular anger at the religious, a groundswell that some analysts compared to taxpayer revolts in the United States. Many Israelis are furious that their sons must serve three years in the army, while ultra-Orthodox boys have enjoyed a blanket exemption to study sacred Jewish texts.

"Their game is up!" Lapid proclaimed in his ads.

His harangues, interspliced on TV with howling crowds of black-hatted religious men, struck ultra-Orthodox commentators as demagoguery. They disputed the amounts of subsidies Lapid said had been funneled to the ultra-Orthodox, and denied his allegations of religious coercion.

"I would guess in his life Tommy Lapid has never refrained or been forced to refrain from anything he wanted to do because of any piece of religious legislation," said Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

Said Ravitz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi: "We know from the dark days in Europe that some fascist parties used the same methods as Lapid. They didn't care whether they said lies or truths--anything in order to make hatred. He is spreading so many lies and using the feelings of people who don't understand and don't have the knowledge and information to know that this redneck leader is trying to make them crazy. It's a shame for the country that there is a party like this."

Across the board, the campaign was rich in strident rhetoric. But it was Lapid who triggered perhaps the most riveting moment of raw emotion. It came in a televised debate between Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox interior minister, Eliahu Suissa.

Lapid called Suissa a disgrace for defending an ultra-Orthodox politician sentenced to prison for bribery. Suissa responded that Lapid was the real disgrace, for dividing the nation with his attacks on the religious.

"I should be put in a concentration camp, right, Mr. Suissa?" said Lapid.

"You were there, and it seems that you've learned nothing. . . . But don't worry, we'll exorcise the demon that got into you and maybe you'll calm down once and for all."

It hardly mattered that Lapid had not, in fact, spent time in a concentration camp.

"What they're saying is, 'We are the real Jews, so whoever is against us must be an antisemite,' " said Lapid. "I'm not only a very Jewish Jew, I'm a Jewish nationalist. Calling me an antisemite is like calling a Daughter of the American Revolution anti-American. I came to Israel 50 years ago to live in a specifically Jewish country. Otherwise I would have lived in America."

Many Sides to the Story

The outcome of the parliamentary election reflects the rift in Israeli society. Lapid's party won six seats, and another assertively secular party also did well. But ultra-Orthodox parties increased their clout by more than 50 percent to 22 seats. (Arabs, who make up about a sixth of Israel's population, have 10 seats.) When the new Knesset convenes in the next few weeks, a third of the 120 seats will be held either by ultra-Orthodox or militantly secular Israelis.

But many Jews are neither militantly secular nor devoutly religious, and believe the fight has distorted the essence of Israeli society. They are uncomfortable with the rancor of Lapid's assaults on the religious, even if they share some of his resentments.

Beyond the particulars of the debate, Lapid's own personality has generated anger, and not only from the religious, who say they will walk out of the Knesset chamber whenever Lapid rises to speak. Most consider it unlikely that the new prime minister, Ehud Barak, will grant Lapid his wish to become justice minister. That would make him the public guardian of the Israeli court system, which is under attack by the ultra-Orthodox for its alleged secular bias.

"It is necessary to wipe the makeup off the clown's face and warn the public," wrote Yoel Esteron, managing editor of Israel's leading liberal daily, Haaretz. "He is an impostor, a chatterbox pretending to be a warrior, a conservative disguised as a liberal, a rightist gathering votes on the left."

But Lapid is undaunted by the storm. Perhaps he even enjoys it a little.

"Holocaust survivors are sharply divided into two groups," he says. "One is people who are afraid of everything. One is afraid of nothing. And I belong to the second group."

CAPTION: Tommy Lapid wants the politicians, not the rabbis, to run Israel.

CAPTION: "They think that in faith they can find the solution for social and economic problems," Tommy Lapid says of Israel's ultra-Orthodox.