Jerusalem’s Shabbat wars fuelled by rabbis’ fear

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 2, 2009
A policeman pushes a Charedi man protesting against Shabbat violations

A policeman pushes a Charedi man protesting against Shabbat violations

This month’s “Shabbat wars” in central Jerusalem inspired in many a weary feeling of déjà vu.

Since the 1920s, when the first violent demonstrations took place against football matches organised by the British authorities, every commercial, cultural and sporting activity on Shabbat has proved a flashpoint.

For the past three weeks, the issue has been the opening of a municipal car park near Meah Shearim on Shabbat, sparking mass protests by the Charedi community.

But for once, it wasn’t only Charedim clashing with police. For the first time in years, secular citizens are also taking to the streets in their thousands. Still, the real conflict is going on behind the scenes within the strictly Orthodox leadership. Much more is at stake here than the operation of one car park.

Despite decades of protests, over the years more and more establishments have opened up in Jerusalem seven days a week. Dozens of restaurants, pubs, clubs, cinemas and 24/7 shops operate now unhindered. The last of the great Shabbat protests took place on the Bar-Ilan Road in 1998 and, since then, the Charedim have preferred to extend their neighbourhoods and influence municipal events through City Hall which, by dint of basic demography, steadily came under their control.

The speed with which this current round of hostilities flared up is connected in part to the strictly Orthodox fear that the tide may have begun turning against them.

After six years in which their representative, Uri Lupolianski, served as mayor, secular and Zionist religious voters joined at the polling stations to vote in Nir Barkat.

The new secular mayor initially sought to build bridges, bringing the Charedi parties into his coalition, but the blunt way in which he tried to solve the Shabbat parking problem, opening the municipal Safra car park near City Hall, gave the more radical elements the excuse they needed to take to the streets.

Mr Barkat backtracked, opting instead to open the privately-owned Karta car park, but it was too late; the protesters were already out of control.

The demonstrations were led by the small and fanatical Edah Charedit group, which has always castigated the more mainstream leadership for taking part in the political system.

Leading rabbis such as Rav Yossef Shalom Elyashiv and the Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Alter, have never been big fans of large demonstrations. They are afraid of losing control of their younger followers on the streets and prefer operating through political back-channels.

But the bitter rivalries between the “Lithuanian” community and the Ger Chasidim, who were blamed for the electoral downfall, mean that no group or rabbi can allow itself to be seen as going soft.

Behind the scenes, many of the rabbis have tried to rein in the more violent outbreaks, promoting instead a more peaceful mass Shabbat-night prayer. But the lip service they have given to the anti-car park campaign has provided licence to the hotheads throwing rotten fruit and dirty nappies at the police.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010