An attempt by militant secular Jews to set fire to a Tel Aviv synagogue early today in retaliation for a campaign by Orthodox Jews of burning public bus shelters exhibiting swimsuit advertisements has worsened the violence between religious and secular Jews in Israel, prompting an emergency meeting of senior Cabinet ministers.
As Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with ministers of police and religious affairs to discuss the growing polarization between the two communities, political leaders expressed shock at the attempted burning of a synagogue by Jews, and warned of an open secular-religious war.
Israeli President Chaim Herzog said the arson attack was reminiscent of pre-World War II attacks on Jews in Europe, which motivated the founding of the Jewish state.
While telling a visiting delegation of the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League that he hoped today's attack was an isolated incident, Herzog added, "When you create an atmosphere in which lunatics can operate, then you have created a very dangerous atmosphere."
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek called the attacks on bus shelters by ultra-Orthodox militants a "civil rebellion," and urged the government to take forceful action. "The rebellion can be put down as it would in any modern state," Kollek said on Israeli television, adding that security forces should deal with extremist Orthodox as forcefully as they do with Arabs.
Kollek criticized the release yesterday of 10 Orthodox Jews charged with vandalizing bus shelters. He said, "In my opinion, these people should be arrested and kept far away from Jerusalem, where their families cannot make things easier for them. They should have suitable punishment for the things they are doing."
Peres said tonight that the government would encourage pluralism in Israel, but that no one, "religious or nonreligious, will be permitted in this country to act outside of the framework of the law or against it."
He added, "We shall try to make a double effort to stop violence, if necessary by force, to bring an accommodation without trying to quiet a single voice."
This morning's attempted burning of a synagogue in the Kiryat Shalom neighborhood in south Tel Aviv was the most serious attack yet against a religious institution by militant secular Jews, who recently have painted drawings of nude women and pigs, along with obscene graffiti, on religious buildings in Jerusalem's Orthodox Mea Shearim Quarter.
Police said that a small fire ignited by a can of kerosene damaged a corner of the synagogue. They said a note signed "People Against the Ultra-Orthodox" warned that one synagogue would be set ablaze for every public bus shelter destroyed by religious Jews protesting posters advertising women's bathing suits that they regard as sexually provocative.
Six bus shelters in central Jerusalem were set afire early yesterday and seven near Haifa were burned early today. In recent weeks, more than 60 have been burned and more than a dozen Orthodox Jews have been arrested, although most have been released.
An aide to Peres said the ministers agreed tonight that the government should "take every possible means to end the violence from both sides," including stronger police measures.
Israel's chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, called for an urgent meeting with Peres to discuss the religious violence.
A shouting match erupted in parliament today between Speaker Shlomo Hillel and Menachem Porush, of the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party, when Hillel warned of a "cultural war" breaking out and asked members to oppose illegal acts by all Israelis.
Porush said in an interview later that "for two years already we are asking them to take off these posters. So, if there is a civilian uprising, I would say it is a leadership uprising in the state of Israel."