A hard rain is going to fall

“It is not just a matter of putting some limit to what some haredim see as a loosening of the Shabbat status quo.”

City councilwoman Laura Wharton of Meretz (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
City councilwoman Laura Wharton of Meretz
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Politicians don’t have copyrights, and it’s a good thing.
Otherwise, the two – and only – representatives of the opposition at the city council might have had to pay some royalties to former MK and retired Black Panther Charlie Biton for the use of one of his most successful gimmicks.
Biton, today an outspoken supporter of the right wing, was once upon a time in the late 1970s and the ’80s a no less outspoken MK of the Communist list, Hadash. As such he fought, with a lot of bravado, the government’s capitalist policy, and was very creative in making lots of noise and drawing attention to his almost daily “shows.”
In one of those shows, he handcuffed his hands to the podium in the Knesset’s main hall; in another, he spoke for about half an hour to the wall, with his back to the MKs, declaring that since the government wouldn’t listen to his claims, he’d better speak to the walls. Also one morning, he organized another spectacle with his friends – they stole milk bottles from the front doors of wealthy Rehavia residents (in the days when milk was distributed to homes by milkmen) and brought the milk to needy families in Musrara, Biton’s native neighborhood.
Last week, Laura Wharton and Itai Gutler, representatives of Meretz and the Zionist Union in the city council, took a page from Biton’s legacy and brought tomatoes, cucumbers and loaves of bread to the council hall.
They tried to distribute the goods to ultra-Orthodox council members, as a gimmick to show how ridiculous and unjust, in their eyes, the decision is to shut down city center minimarkets open on Shabbat.
They didn’t have the time to accomplish their plan – municipality ushers stopped them, and also because council hall rules forbid bringing in any food or beverage.
But the message was clear, as Wharton put it: The minimarkets Mayor Nir Barkat has decided to shut down, following a firm request by haredi members of his coalition, sell only basic food items – something anybody could have the need to purchase, whether residents or tourists.
Beyond the gimmick itself, Wharton and Gutler’s protest revealed not only the opposition, but much more the fear that the next step is already near – on Shabbat, the shuttering of restaurants; preventing movie screenings at community centers; and, as announced at the end of that same meeting city by Councilman Yohanan Weitzman (United Torah Judaism), also stopping the ShabaTarbut series in five community centers across the city. These events are officially held without any Shabbat transgression and are also suitable for observant participants, but Weitzman says the use of microphones and electric kettles are just “blatant and public desecrations of Shabbat, and therefore will be stopped soon.”
“It is not just a matter of putting some limit to what some haredim see as a loosening of the Shabbat status quo,” said a non-haredi member of the coalition who preferred not to be identified. “Of course, there is a sense that for the past year or two, things have changed here – better for the young adults, who want to enjoy a free and open city; while for the haredim, it seems as a failure of their representatives to keep the status quo.”
This is also what Councilman Yitzhak Pindrus (UTJ) has repeatedly said: “Each week, there is another restaurant or bar or coffee shop open on Shabbat, with tables and chairs on display on the sidewalks in the city center and along the way haredim take to reach the Western Wall. We just can’t ignore them.”
But there is more, adds the anonymous councilman. For him, the eventual departure of Barkat from the city’s helm to the national political ground has awakened some “sleeping demons,” as he called it.
“My guess is that for the moment, the haredim are still not ready to repeat their bet of 2003 – that is, to run a haredi candidate for mayor. But they probably feel they have to get ready for that day, as elections will be in two years, who knows? Perhaps even before. So it’s the minimarkets, the ShabaTarbut series, the movies in community centers and, let’s not forget, the battle over Kiryat Hayovel,” he said.
“I think they are reminding all of us that whoever will be replacing Barkat, they are still here and they are still about 40 percent of the Jewish population of the city.”