A convenience store in Jerusalem that is open on Shabbat.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Mayor Nir Barkat’s controversial decision last week to enforce the closure of eight downtown mini-markets on Shabbat was heralded by the city’s ultra-Orthodox community as a great victory for the sanctity of Jerusalem. On the other hand, many secular residents consider it a blow to their freedom to shop for food on the Jewish Sabbath.
This battle has been waged for years over that fundamental Israeli moral principle known as the status quo, without approaching any mutually agreeable solution.
The current round, however, indicates that the true zerosum game being played is over municipal politics, not religious observance.
While the debate rages in some circles over the question of Jerusalem remaining undivided under a future peace settlement, too little attention is being paid to the existing division of the city between the ultra-Orthodox and the non-haredi populations.
It is hard to ignore the fact that haredi neighborhoods, by their own design, have become de facto ghettos on Shabbat.
Some 270 streets in Jerusalem are blocked to traffic on the Sabbath. The entry of any vehicle, including bicycles, is strictly forbidden – and the unfortunate driver who makes a wrong turn risks being stoned by “religious” fanatics.
The city council approved the list over the years, although the municipality states that “not a single new road has been closed to traffic during Mayor Nir Barkat’s term.” But the list has expanded from haredi neighborhoods – such as Mea She’arim, the Bukharan Quarter, Beit Yisrael, Sha’arei Hesed, Sanhedria, Tel Arza, Kiryat Sanz, Kerem Avraham, Har Nof and Ramat Shlomo – to the mixed neighborhood of Ramot, where the streets are blocked off in the northern haredi compound of Ramot Polin.
The closures have spread inexorably from the periphery toward the inner city. All the streets of the Bayit Vegan neighborhood are also closed, as are the main arteries of Givat Mordechai and the Nahlaot neighborhood of central Jerusalem.
In addition, residents often close off streets illegally on their own accord, and in one infamous case with fatal results. In 1966, sculptor David Palombo – who created the gates to the Knesset and the memorial building at Yad Vashem – was decapitated when his motorcycle hit a chain haredim had stretched across the entrance to the Yemin Moshe neighborhood on the eve of Shabbat.
There is perhaps no clearer example of the interface between politics and religion in Jerusalem than the battle of the multiplex cinemas. The 15 screens of Cinema City, located opposite the Supreme Court in the national government compound, are dark on Shabbat. The 19 screens of the new multiplex Yes Planet, in the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor, are open for business on Shabbat.
The difference is that Cinema City was built on state land, and as such is prohibited from operating during Shabbat, while Yes Planet was constructed on private land, free of government intervention. Not unexpectedly, both cinemas’ operations on Shabbat were strenuously opposed by the ultra-Orthodox.
The Shabbat opening of Yes Planet in a nonreligious neighborhood, though lawful, was taken as an insult to the holiness of Jerusalem by the haredim, who threatened Barkat’s coalition and demanded compensation; hence the Shabbat closures of eight downtown mini-markets on the Sabbath.
Deputy Mayor Haim Epstein of the haredi Bnei Torah Party and a coalition partner disingenuously denied the shutdown is related to Yes Planet. He asserted that tourism to Jerusalem is based on it being a spiritual city, and that Jews, Christians and Muslims flock to the capital to experience its unique character especially on Shabbat.
On the other hand, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On condemned the move, saying it tramples the rights of the secular community in a cynical attempt to cater to the ultra-Orthodox.
A purely economic argument was offered by Councilman Hanan Rubin, whose Hitorerut Party is a member of Barkat’s coalition. “Jerusalem’s city center has a diverse population, including secular people, tourists and others. If there are eight grocery stores open on Shabbat, then clearly there is demand, and they should be allowed to remain open,” Rubin told The Jerusalem Post.
While the sanctity of Shabbat is sacred to many, Rubin’s words ring true. One thing that is clear in Jerusalem’s zerosum Shabbat battle is that the Middle East’s only democracy should not tolerate religious coercion of any kind.