It seems that the public has discovered the tremendous appeal of city council meetings. Until recently, it was mostly secular residents who came to the big hall to demonstrate against unpopular decisions by the haredi majority. But the city council meeting last Thursday showcased some new guests, with half of the seats in the hall occupied by students of one of the yeshivot in Har Nof. Rumor had it that Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack had asked them to attend the session to fill places in the hall that might otherwise have been occupied by secular residents of Kiryat Hayovel, who were invited by opposition leader Nir Barkat to demonstrate against the placement of caravans for haredi kindergartens on the neighborhood's otherwise secular Rehov Warburg. Pollack denied the rumor, but one of his assistants did say with a smile that "sometimes even haredim learn something from the secular." Whether it was Pollack's initiative or the yeshiva students' own flash of ingenuity, the result was indeed dozens of Kiryat Hayovel residents blocked at the main entrance to Kikar Safra by at least six very tense guards, and of course, an opening declaration by Barkat that the "mayor is acting against democracy" by banning taxpayers from attending the city council. A press release from the Wake up Jerusalem political movement went even further, accusing Mayor Uri Lupolianski of "banning 40 secular residents from demonstrating democratically by bringing a group of haredim who occupied almost all the seats in the hall." Could it be that I am the only one who feels somewhat uncomfortable with these declarations? After all, isn't democracy about residents enacting the rights of residents, regardless of their faith, customs or dress habits? True, it was indeed frustrating to discover that haredim quickly learn the tremendous possibilities afforded by democracy - like for instance, the right to attend city hall meetings. But hey, isn't that what democracy's about? Ultimately, whether it was a spontaneous strategy or a planned one, almost all the demonstrators from Kiryat Hayovel did finally enter the hall - first, because the mayor agreed to instruct the guards to allow more people to enter, and also because some of those already inside were taken out when they shouted disapproval at haredi councillors' speeches. Meanwhile, the yeshiva students, who seemed to have been duly instructed, were content to applaud. But what came afterward was in no way a good example of what democracy and freedom of speech can or should allow. This column has in the past described tense and stormy city council meetings. And indeed, the most recent meeting easily earns a high spot on the list of the ugliest and most violent of meetings. The main issue was, of course, the repeated attempts by the haredi branch of Manhi (Jerusalem Education Administration) to secure more classrooms in emptying secular institutions. Somehow the "show" by our city councillors reached - and not for the first time - a new low when UTJ city council member Avraham Feiner said: "We [the haredim], thank God, have lots of children, but you [the secular], what do you have? One child and one dog?" Meretz councillor Pepe Alalu, infuriated, responded that even the dogs of the secular residents pay more arnona (property tax) than the haredi residents. Feiner followed up by saying: "The Nazis made similar charges of our worth; we had it then, and now we face it here also." This last remark unleashed a hurricane of residents, who, outraged, tried to approach Feiner, but were promptly removed from the hall by the guards. En route, one woman shouted, "Shame on you, anti-Semite, may your 10 children serve in the army like ours do!" You may be wondering what was accomplished at this council meeting - besides the exchange of nasty remarks. Well, not much. Lupolianski managed, with his large (though not very supportive) majority, to reject all the opposition members' proposals, including one asking the city council to "put an end to attempts to take over the secular parts of the city by the haredi population," and a plea presented by residents, city center merchants and taxi and bus drivers, to put an end to the "agony of Jaffa Road and the traffic in the city caused by the light rail works." At least it was a democratic meeting of the city council, open to all residents.

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