social issues

A one-year-old baby is at the centre of growing controversy that has pitted the rights of individual Israelis to follow their conscience against the formidable powers of the country’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment. The hold of the religious authorities over Israelis’ private lives has been thrust into the spotlight after a rabbinical court ruled that a Jewish woman must circumcise her son against her wishes.

Health officials in Israel are subjecting many female Ethiopian immigrants to a controversial long-term birth control drug in what Israeli women’s groups allege is a racist policy to reduce the number of black babies. The contraceptive, known as Depo Provera, which is given by injection every three months, is considered by many doctors as a birth control method of last resort because of problems treating its side effects. However, according to a report published last week, use of the contraceptive by Israeli doctors has risen threefold over the past few years.

A local authority in Israel has announced that it is establishing a special team of youth counsellors and psychologists whose job it will be to identify young Jewish women who are dating Arab men and “rescue” them. The move by the municipality of Petah Tikva, a city close to Tel Aviv, is the latest in a series of separate – and little discussed – initiatives from official bodies, rabbis, private organisations and groups of Israeli residents to try to prevent interracial dating and marriage.

Two immigrants from the former Soviet Union staged a very public wedding in the streets of central Tel Aviv this week to highlight the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jews barred from lawfully marrying in Israel. Nico Tarosyan and Olga Samosvatov chose to tie the knot in a special ceremony on Tuesday after Orthodox rabbis had denied them the right to wed. The rabbinate says that Mr Tarosyan cannot prove he is Jewish according to its strict standards and therefore should not marry Ms Samosvatov, who is considered a proper Jew.

The Jewish community of Kfar Vradim, set in the still-verdant hills of northern Israel close to the Lebanese border, has taken the idea of neighbourly feuds to a new – and noisier – level. Last week, it set up a large sound system, pointed it at the neighbouring homes in the Arab town of Tarshiha, the nearest of which are less than 1km away, and blasted them with Beethoven and Mozart. Officials said they were forced to take the drastic step in retaliation for what they call the “deafening” blare of Arab music from late-night street parties.

Israel’s second largest bank will be forced to defend itself in court in the coming weeks over claims it is withholding tens of millions of dollars in “lost” accounts belonging to Jews who died in the Nazi death camps. Bank Leumi has denied it holds any such funds, despite a parliamentary committee revealing in 2004 that the bank owes at least $75 million to the families of several thousand Holocaust victims.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the man designated to be Israel’s next prime minister, was due to hold talks today with his chief political rival, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, in a bid to persuade her to join a unity government and avert the danger of international isolation. The Likud leader has been making strenuous efforts to woo Ms Livni – or find a “common path”, as he calls it – since he was tapped to form the government by Shimon Peres, the president, a week ago.

Scrawled across a wall on a busy main street is the statement in Hebrew: “Fashion equals promiscuity”. For women in some Israeli communities, such public sentiments are not simply idle graffiti – they are a warning, and one that is increasingly backed by threats of physical violence. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, religious fundamentalists who believe it is more important to follow their interpretation of God’s precepts than abide by Israeli laws, choose to live in separate neighbourhoods and towns, often close to the holy sites of Jerusalem.