Religious-Secular Divide, Tugging at Israel's Heart

The New York Times/September 3, 2009

Jerusalem - On Saturday, as on every Saturday in recent weeks, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered before dusk on the terraces above the Carta parking lot just outside the Old City walls. In black silk Sabbath robes and fur hats, they lined up in rows, perched and waiting.

Suddenly their foot soldiers arrived on the street below, protesters who surged past the newly opened luxury Mamilla Hotel. Police officers mounted on horses rushed to meet them as hotel guests looked on, bewildered, from windows on the upper floors.

This summer, radical elements of the ultra-Orthodox community have been demonstrating and rioting against city authorities, welfare officials and the police. For Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, a secular high-tech millionaire trying to attract more business, tourism and professional types to the city, the timing has been inopportune, to say the least.

The tensions in this contested city usually run along an east-west, Jewish-Palestinian divide. But within the western, predominantly Jewish, section of the city, the cultural fault lines between religious and secular Jews run deep. Any change in the delicate status quo seems capable of setting off a riot, as Jerusalem's most zealous Jews and liberals vie for the city's character and soul.

"It is all part of the special human mosaic that makes up Jerusalem," said Israel Kimhi, a director of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, an independent research organization here. But the recent turmoil "does not do much for the image of the city," he added, arguing that a small but strident section of the ultra-Orthodox population has grown increasingly extreme.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as haredim, or those who fear God, went to battle in years past to ensure observation of the Jewish Sabbath, and tried to force the closing of movie theaters and roads. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, strictly observant Jews do not work, use electric devices, spend money or drive. There are no municipal services during the Sabbath in Jerusalem, and on the Jewish side most businesses are closed.

But after a 13-year lull in what local residents call the "Sabbath wars," another round started one Saturday in June, when City Hall decided to open a parking lot. With the security situation in Jerusalem relatively calm, tourists and day trippers have been flocking back to the Old City on weekends, prompting a need for somewhere to park their cars.

At first, the mayor opened a municipal parking lot under City Hall. When that led to protests, he opened the private Carta lot under Arab management, and made it free of charge. The protests only intensified.

Yoelish Kraus, the operations chief for the Eda Haredit, the militantly Orthodox organization behind the protests, said the mayor's mistake was announcing the opening of the parking lot at a news conference. As soon as there is a public sanction for violating the Sabbath, he said, "we have to fight."

The ultra-Orthodox make up about a third of Jerusalem's Jewish population, and the adherents of the Eda Haredit are only a fraction of that. But with an average of 10 children per family, Mr. Kraus said, the community is growing fast.

The rabbinic sects of the Eda Haredit are the scions of Orthodox Jews who were in Palestine before the foundation of Israel in 1948. In the absence of the Messiah, they fervently reject Zionism and the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

The protesters called the police "Nazis" and spat at them. Special Force police officers dumped troublemakers into the fragrant rosemary and lavender bushes along the sidewalk. Protesters who tried to block the road were sprayed with pepper gas and carried off in a prison service van.

A small knot of secular counterprotesters sang songs at a bus stop while ultra-Orthodox demonstrators threw plastic bottles of water and pebbles at them. "The parking lot will stay open because we will not let it close," said Nir Pereg, 29, a secular resident of the city, as his companions belted out a round of "Jerusalem will not fall."

The Eda Haredit has also rallied around one of its members this summer, a mother who was arrested on suspicion of starving her 3-year-old son. Her supporters rioted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and set fire to a local welfare office where she had met with social workers before being detained.

Fierce riots broke out on Sunday night after the police entered a central ultra-Orthodox neighborhood to remove the body of a murder victim from a hostel. The riot seemed to have more to do with a general hatred of the police than the killing itself, which did not even involve a member of the ultra-Orthodox community. For the first time, the police used tear gas and stun grenades and fired in the air to disperse the crowds.

The Eda Haredit called the police "murderers," saying later in a poster that a young yeshiva student had been run over and badly wounded by a vehicle of the "Zionist Gestapo" force.

Violence then broke out again on Tuesday night, when a mob attacked a taxi driven by an Arab driver in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. The driver escaped, though the car was battered.

In a modest counterstrike on a recent weekday morning, eight non-Orthodox Jewish activists - six women and two men - got on a No. 40 bus heading from the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot D into town. The women sat down in the front rows. The men went to the back.

Ramot D is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where rigid religious rules are applied. The No. 40 is one of several public bus lines designated as "mehadrin," or strictly kosher, where the men sit in the front and the women behind. The activists view this draconian interpretation of the modesty code practiced by Orthodox Jews as discriminatory, and the policy is being appealed in Israel's Supreme Court.

Stern black-coated male passengers muttered their disapproval, but the Rosa Parks-inspired act of civil disobedience took place peacefully, largely because the bus driver, an Arab, decided not to try to enforce the rules.

Some ultra-Orthodox women said they liked the separate seating arrangement. Others took advantage of the activists' presence and moved to the front.

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