Wrestling with the day of rest

A religious issue is fast becoming a political one with the return of the ‘Shabbat Wars.’

Ice City (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ice City
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
There are many ways to observe Shabbat – it could be haredi style or modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or secular. But now it seems that Jerusalem has given rise to a new way of celebrating the holy seventh day of the week. It is neither observant nor New Age but political. In other words, Shabbat, the day of rest and sanctity, has become a hostage in the hands of opposing parties fighting over its character.
The public aspect of Shabbat in this country is regulated through the secular-religious status quo agreement, which was signed in the first years of the establishment of the State of Israel. It is aimed at combining the limits of the religious side with the needs of the secular citizens and the economy. One of its primary regulations states that within public venues and organizations in the country, the religious laws should be respected – thus, for example, the food in the IDF is kosher; while in the private sphere, things can be more lax.
In Jerusalem, of course, things are much more complicated.
Not only the status quo but also the fact that one-third of the city’s Jewish population is haredi affect the determination of how Shabbat should or should not be observed.
The Shabbat Wars – as they have been called since the 1970s – have focused on various issues regarding the range and implementation of the status quo, but basically nothing has really changed – sporadic clashes between haredim and the secular still erupt from time to time.
Well, almost nothing has changed, since for the last five years or so the secular residents, mostly the young generation, have totally changed their attitude about this issue. In the past, the demonstrations were mostly organized and led mainly by Meretz members (veterans may remember the struggle led by Ornan Yekutieli in the 1980s to keep the movie theater at Beit Agron open on Shabbat – a struggle that eventually brought Yekutieli to the city council as a representative of the party).
Today, as a direct result of the several youth organizations working to promote pluralistic life in the communities, things are changing. There are two major examples of these changes. One is Kiryat Hayovel, where a tenacious struggle is going on between the haredi and secular communities over the character of the neighborhood.
The other is the city council’s debate about whether or not to permit new movie theaters to be open on Shabbat.
For the moment, there is a kind of status quo on the status quo situation. While the city is witnessing a substantial increase in the number of private leisure and cultural venues that are open on Shabbat, the city council has not yet managed to obtain a change in the situation of cultural and leisure projects endorsed by the municipality. For example, the Cinema City being built close to the entrance of the city is still not slated to screen movies on Shabbat, even though it is a privately funded project.
The screening of movies at the Kiryat Hayovel community center on Friday evenings is also on the agenda of the neighborhood’s action committee; Cinema City is back on the agenda, in advance of its launch, scheduled for next April; and the Ice Festival has just joined the list of events and venues that will reignite the Shabbat Wars.
But as usual, things are much more complex, since what is at stake is not merely the opening of a movie theater here or a popular attraction there on Shabbat.
What we are in fact witnessing is the beginning of the campaign for the next city council and mayoral elections.
To date amid the haredi circles, the decision not to enter a haredi candidate is still strongly supported by most of the leaders of that community. But what emerges is that the next campaign will be focused mainly on the coexistence – possible or not – between the haredi community and the other Jewish residents of the city. On one hand, we have the haredi leaders eager to send the mayor a clear message that if he wants them in his next coalition, he will have to do better in terms of preventing public desecration of Shabbat. On the other hand, Meretz and Hitorerut, both represented on the city council, as well as quite a few organizations working to ensure the rights of the secular community – such as the right to see a movie on Shabbat or enjoy a pub in their neighborhood – are clearly intimating to Mayor Nir Barkat that they represent a large part of the city’s residents and are not going to give up their rights.
All these and more are turning Shabbat in Jerusalem from a cultural experience into a political issue.
Stay tuned for more.