Beginning early in the afternoon Sunday, Jerusalem was shut down almost completely by a massive demonstration against yeshiva students being drafted into the IDF. Route 1, the main highway providing access to western destinations such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheba, was closed between Jerusalem and Latrun. Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, the hub of transportation both locally and the gateway to the rest of the country, was shuttered. Many city bus routes and even the light rail service ceased to work. Schools, government offices, and many private businesses closed their doors early. Some employees in both the public and private sectors were forced to waste a half-day vacation leave or lose a half-day of wages. Tens of thousands of people were inconvenienced, millions of shekels were lost, and thousands of police and security personnel were forced to work overtime.
It is a human, political, and civil right to be allowed to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue, and defend common interests. Any self-respecting democracy protects this right with vigilance and Israel is no exception.
This right must be upheld even when the goal of the assembly or demonstration is to criticize and even undermine a value deemed to be central to a nation’s ethos – in this case Zionism’s support for universal conscription or national service. Indeed, it is precisely when a message is controversial and even offensive to the majority that it is most important that democratic society fight against the tendency to stifle basic freedoms of expression.
That’s why it is important to safeguard the right of hundreds of thousands of devoutly religious men, women, and children to take to the streets to protest what they believe to be an affront to the Jewish value of Torah scholarship and attempts to coerce able-bodied young men into performing some form of military or national service.
But does all this justify completely paralyzing our capital smack in the middle of a work day? The spokesman’s office of the Jerusalem Municipality told The Jerusalem Post that all the decisions related to the timing and venue of the demonstration were made by the police. Asked by the Post’s Jerusalem affairs correspondent, Daniel K. Eisenbud, why police granted permission for a demonstration that so utterly disrupted the capital, Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld answered that “the protesters have the right to carry out this massive demonstration as long as they carry it out in coordination with the police, which they’re doing.”
Rosenfeld went on to explain that the entrance to the city was selected for the protest because it would allow for a relatively quick dispersion of the crowds. Any other place in Jerusalem would have blocked off the whole city, Rosenfeld said.
Even if we were to give the police the benefit of the doubt and allow that concentrating the demonstration in a more outlaying area, say Teddy Stadium, which has a capacity of 34,000 and could accommodate tens of thousands more in the parking lot outside and the surrounding area, would have caused even more disruption, we nevertheless do not understand why the demonstration was allowed to take place in the middle of a work day.
Police could have easily scheduled the demonstrations to take place in the evening after 6 p.m. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral, which drew hundreds of thousands to Jerusalem, was held in the evening hours after many had finished their day’s work and had managed to get home.
Another option is to hold the demonstration at a time when fewer people work. Saturday night is one such option, though religious figures would probably oppose the idea because the preparations would entail the desecration of Shabbat. Another option is early Friday morning.
When Jerusalem hosts the Gay Pride Parade, as it has over the past few years, it normally takes place on a Friday.
The purpose of any political demonstration like the one that took place on Sunday is to make a statement. The right to make this statement should be upheld for all segments of society, even for those who would, if given the reins of political leadership, likely be far less magnanimous.
But by planning this demonstration in the middle of the day, the intended political message is liable to be overshadowed by Israelis’ feelings of anger and frustration for being subjected to so much unnecessary inconvenience.