Two years ago, at the age of 88 and after living in Jerusalem for 85 years, my grandmother, Gracia Baram, decided to move to Tel Aviv. The reasons she supplied for this surprising step were similar to those one hears from people 60 years her junior. Like many who abandon Jerusalem, she was worn out by the increasing dominance of the religious community. The other tenants in the Jerusalemite old people's home were all observant Jews, and my atheist grandmother kept grumping over their "primitive" ceremonies, the compulsory prayers before Friday's dinner, and their right-wing opinions.
In Tel Aviv, my grandmother joined two of her sons, who had moved there to join their own sons and daughters. Within five years, almost the entire Baram family, a Jerusalemite clan, had left the city that my grandfather ruled for years during the 1950s as the head of the Jerusalem Workers' Council, and where he served as a cabinet minister in Yitzhak Rabin's first government.
Israelis who do not practise religion are still a majority in Israel, but the "seculars" as a sociological group consist of two major sub-groups. The first is Israeli-born, mainly of European origin and middle class. Superficially, it seems that this group has done well in terms of secular freedom over the past 20 years, even in the microcosm of Jerusalem. In 1987, young secular Jerusalemites rebelled against the "Saturday night curfew" that used to be imposed on the city. My generation of high school students genuinely believed, in those naive pre-intifada years, that religious coercion was the biggest problem of Israeli society. We rallied outside Jerusalem's closed cinemas every Saturday night, and looked scornfully on our opponents, Orthodox youngsters who walked all the way from their remote neighbourhoods to participate in counter-demonstrations.
We seemed to have won. The cinemas opened for weekends, a revolution that was followed by the opening of pubs, non-kosher restaurants and corner shops, in addition to the thriving of a semi-European clubbing scene, which even attracted envious visitors from swinging Tel Aviv during the cheerful 1990s. The Orthodox, except for some minor outbursts of discontent, turned their backs on the streets of shame in central West Jerusalem. Maybe they knew what we failed to see: we had won one battle, but they were winning the war.
"Demography", a term used in Israel in order to raise racist fear of the Arab birth rate, is on the side of the Orthodox religious. Young "seculars" in Israel nowadays conclude their compulsory military service of two to three years; travel in India, the Far East or South America for at least a year; obtain a university degree; and then maybe start to consider settling down. By that time, their Orthodox counterparts, most of whom do not serve in the army and certainly don't travel around the world, will be expecting their fifth child. Secular couples tend to have no more than two children. As in Europe, more and more remain single and childless until their late thirties or early forties.
Many secular schools in Jerusalem have shut down in the past ten years: 52 per cent of first-graders in the city are Orthodox religious children, and secular schools find it harder and harder to justify their operational costs. In 2002, Jerusalem elected its first Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski. Lupolianski is a mild version of an Orthodox politician, and his treatment of the seculars in the city largely maintains the status quo. But many seculars refuse to wait for the next Orthodox mayor, who might not be that accommodating. Young single seculars move to Tel Aviv and young couples move to Modi'in, an Israeli version of Milton Keynes between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Others disperse to the picturesque villages around the city, which have turned into a new fashionable suburbia.
In the early 1990s, the seculars received substantial reinforcement, in the shape of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This group tipped the balance not only in favour of Jews versus Arab demography in Israel, but also in the Jewish internal demographic battle between secular and religious. A large number of the newcomers are not Jewish by strict religious standards, a fact that has caused constant friction between the government, which encouraged their immigration, and the mighty Orthodox establishment. The politicians were striving for a wider definition of the term Jew, so that it would include practically everybody who is not Arab, who was interested in becoming an Israeli citizen, and not conspicuously devoted to any other religion. For the rabbis, this was hardly enough.
But in its attempt to abuse the new immigrants, prevent some of them from getting married through the religious system (the only one possible in Israel), or from being buried in Jewish cemeteries, the religious establishment scored an own-goal. The immigrants, who form around 20 per cent of Israel's citizens and are mostly well educated and keen to practise the democratic game for the first time, fought back. Civil marriage is still not possible in Israel, but many forms of binding matrimonial contracts have become popular. Secular cemeteries have become an option, though like many secular arrangements, these are privately owned enterprises and very expensive.
The two parts of the secular camp in Israel, the "Russians" and the Israeli-born, have not merged into one group. This is not only because the native seculars are concentrated in Tel Aviv and the coastline, while most immigrants live in provincial development towns or settlements in the post-1967 occupied territories. The interests of these two groups are not always identical. The immigrants are far less affluent and are more dependent on economic support from the state. They also, in general terms, tend to be more hawkish in their attitude towards the conflict with the Palestinians, while the indigenous seculars are generally dovish. But both groups support the meteoric rise of the Shinui ("Change") Party, which gained 15 parliamentary seats in the last election campaign.
Shinui was formed by the journalist Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a veteran commentator in the Maariv daily and a regular pundit on political talk shows. Lapid's radical secularism competes only with his devotion to neoliberal economics. He was a close friend and supporter of Robert Maxwell, and when he decided to translate his success as a blunt pundit into political victory, he was supported by the wealthy from Israel's old secular elite.
In other countries, Shinui would have been regarded as an extreme right-wing party. In Israel, it is thought of as a part of the centre left, because its neoliberal leaders realise that without a settlement to the conflict, there is no chance for economic recovery. At the moment, this realisation translates into support for Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan.
Shinui's anti-Orthodox propaganda has been fierce, so much so that Lapid has been accused of anti-Semitism. Lapid initially promised voters that his party would not participate in a coalition government which included the Orthodox parties. Now, with the disengagement plan prominent on the national agenda, he is gradually backing off from this position, doing his utmost to lead Shinui into a coalition with the Orthodox Agudath Israel, "for the sake of peace". The voters are far from happy. Recent polls have shown that "Russian" Shinui supporters are beginning to defect to the ultra-right-wing National Union, led by Avigdor Liberman.
One could argue that the middle-class Israeli seculars have never had it better: the Orthodox establishment long ago gave up on peering into the plates of pork-eaters or wasting time trying to shut down corner shops that operate on the Sabbath. The religious concentrate their energies on getting state funding for their schools and community enterprises.
Nevertheless, the feeling of suffocation is greater than ever. Three years of intifada, economic deterioration and a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots have made the seculars feel as if they are losing their birthright, the haven that their ancestors toiled to establish in the state of Israel. The sense of siege compromises the famous Israeli patriotism; and thoughts of immigration, considered shameful two decades ago, are now openly discussed. Middle-class parents are openly voicing their wish that their children could have a foreign passport, "just in case"; Israelis with Polish grandparents who fled the Nazis in the 1930s are now trying to get them to renew their Polish passports, which may grant clear passage to the EU. If such migration turns into a full-scale phenomenon, it would be, for better or for worse, the end of Israel as we know it.