A secular awakening

Capital's young population hitting back against years of haredi hegemony.

Jerusalem protest 248.88 (photo credit: Eyal Ackerman)
Jerusalem protest 248.88
(photo credit: Eyal Ackerman)
Something is happening to the capital's young, secular population, it seems. With a tailwind from the election of a secular mayor, they are fighting back against years of haredi hegemony. When haredim turned out in numbers to protest the opening of the Safra parking lot two weeks ago, secular Jerusalemites held their own counter demonstrations; when haredim held demonstrations calling for more "mehadrin" separated bus lines, secular Jerusalemites faced them down; in Kiryat Hayovel, a few months ago, they were out in force to fight a decision to set up two haredi kindergartens in the heart of the secular part of the neighborhood. The turning point was the inauguration of the Calatrava Bridge, about a year and a half ago. At the time, the deputy mayor and then-strongman at Kikar Safra, Yehoshua Pollack, forced 12-year-old girls from the local dance company Meholla to cover themselves, arguing that "teenage girls are not innocent and should appear modestly dressed." "I had the feeling that we just witnessed the crossing of a line no politician should ever cross," says a high-ranking employee of the culture department at the municipality. "I remember telling people around me that we had just witnessed the beginning of the end of the haredi hegemony in this city; and, of course, everybody thought I was crazy. It looked as if nothing would stop them anymore. "I can remember some of the jokes, like the next step would be separated sidewalks and a modesty patrol in the streets and so on. But I thought then that it was so 'too much'; that a reaction was inevitable. "Well, the reaction came. The fact is that people who were not so enthusiastic about Barkat's candidacy finally voted for him because he was our last hope, and the strong reaction we saw recently around the parking lot issue comes directly from there: People just said 'Enough is enough.'" Noam Pinhassi, 50, was born in Kiryat Hayovel. He says he loves his neighborhood and wants to stay there, and to see his children remain there as well. "I can't imagine living anywhere else," says Pinhassi. "I am delighted that Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv, that it has deep Jewish roots, although I am not at all religious. But what has happened recently is really too much. My feeling is that the haredim have crossed all the boundaries. I can't tell where and when exactly - some say the ceremony on the bridge when they forced the girls to cover up, some say with the kindergartens and synagogues they forced on us here in Kiryat Hayovel; others say because of the mikve in Beit Hakerem. I guess it's all of it, and perhaps something more. But the fact that they have gone too far is obvious - and it all started from there." Pinhassi continues, "Barkat was elected because the haredim went too far - and the ground here was ripe for a change. After all, he also ran six years ago and was not elected. The haredim became too greedy; they lost the sense of limits, and it all came together: the students, residents like me, who do not hate haredim but just want to live here freely, and the election of Barkat - and we see it now taking shape in front of our eyes," he says. "As far as I am concerned, I would appreciate if all my neighbors were religious Zionist. I love those people. They are Zionist, educated, open minded. I wouldn't care at all being very considerate because I know they wouldn't force it on me. The whole issue is the fact that haredim force themselves on us, and we have become accustomed to the idea that it's the way it should be. "Well, it shouldn't. Would one of us dare open a restaurant in Mea She'arim? Walk there in our summer clothes? Of course not! But we seem to think that it is normal that they should tell us how to live, how to dress and where to go and when. Well, this is over. The times, they are changing." Meanwhile, the secular front is busy preparing its next steps. On Monday the Hit'orerut (Awakening) party, a member of Nir Barkat's coalition, announced a countdown, led by the recently formed Forum of Organizations for a Free Jerusalem, stating that the demonstrations will continue for the two weeks the mayor has given himself to find an alternative solution to the opening of the Safra parking lot. On Saturday, June 27, the day that two-week period ends, there will be "either a big happening in support of Barkat or the largest and toughest protestation and demonstration day ever seen here," depending on the outcome of the issue, says Meirav Cohen, one of the main forces behind the Hit'orerut protest. According to the plan, last Thursday a large symbolic clock was installed at Kikar Safra to start the countdown, while in the evening, during the city council monthly meeting, a vigil took place at the entrance of the main building at Kikar Safra. "One thing is sure," Hit'orerut chairman and city councilor Ofer Berkovitch - one of the major figures in the secular demonstrations - tells In Jerusalem, "we worked very hard to promote this tremendous change, which culminated in the election of a secular mayor, and it means much more than the opening of some parking lot or other. We're talking about saving this city to keep it a pluralistic, open city for all of us." Berkovitch, as well as a long list of young people - students, activists of Hit'orerut and members of New Spirit, the students' association created a few years ago by Barkat, as well as residents of Kiryat Hayovel and Beit Hakerem who oppose the implantation of haredi synagogues and kindergartens in their neighborhoods - all have one thing in common: a deep and essential change in their attitude toward the issue of haredi hegemony. "The days when we just packed our things and left for the center of the country are over," says Berkovitch. "Today we are ready to stay here and to fight - not against the religious, we do not hate them - in favor of a pluralistic city in which we can all live, work, spend our leisure time and raise our families together. And, of course, the Safra parking lot is not the issue. What is at stake is our life here: Do we have an opportunity to earn a decent living in Jerusalem? Can we lead our way of life here without being threatened by haredim who want to bind us to their way of life? These are the issues that will determine if we can live here or not." Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu (Meretz), a veteran of the 1980s and '90s Shabbat wars, says it is Barkat's election as mayor that has given added impetus to the secular awakening in Jerusalem."The residents of Jerusalem became silent due to the 10 soporific years under Olmert. We had no chance against his alliance with the haredim. Then we had five years with Uri Lupolianski. Again, no chance to promote anything in any way. But then came Barkat, with his agenda for the youth, students, pluralism, for the secular population - it gave us all tremendous momentum, and that momentum brought all these people out of their homes to say loud and clear that they won't remain silent anymore. "So we all have huge expectations from Barkat, though we must understand that you don't change everything in such a short period - that's not realistic. But there is no doubt that Barkat's election as mayor of Jerusalem gave many people here the feeling that there was a chance." Indeed, the election of Nir Barkat, a young, secular hi-tech entrepreneur, was unequivocally the major factor behind the change in attitude of the secular residents toward the haredi hegemony in the city, including those - and they are quite a few - who did not approve of the way the parking lot issue was orchestrated. "We were certainly taken by surprise," admits Hit'orerut's Cohen. "It was a decision - which we totally support - made by the mayor on his own. We were not consulted before, neither for the principle nor for the way it was handled." Hit'orerut is not alone. Quite a few other members of Barkat's large coalition learned from the local press about the mayor's decision to open the Safra parking lot on Shabbat. "It's not that we have a problem regarding the specific decision, we support it fully," says one city council member who asked not to be identified, "but our feeling is that we were expected to show support for something we were not consulted about beforehand, and that is not right. Nevertheless, we have all decided to give the mayor our support because we are convinced he means well and because we believe that this city has to be open to all, locals and visitors alike - and an open parking lot that is free on weekends is a must." But not all city councilors see it the same way, including those who believe there's an urgent need for a city free of religious coercion. For Meir Margalit of Meretz, things are getting a little out of proportion. "I remember our slogans during the riots over the closing of Bar-Ilan Street on Shabbat. We used to say that it was a matter of the utmost importance, that if we surrendered there, Jerusalem would be lost. Well, today Bar-Ilan is closed; but as we all can see, Jerusalem is not lost and things are even improving, and here we are with a secular mayor. "So I'd like my friends from the Left to calm down and see things in realistic proportions. I would fight for public transportation in the city on Shabbat, especially on Friday evenings, to help young people. I would fight to open the Jerusalem Theater on Shabbat - but really, is that parking lot the essence of freedom in Jerusalem? Let alone the incredibly immature way this whole issue was handled from the start, though of course I agree that one should not give in to violence." As for the reasons behind the rather unexpected strong reaction of the secular residents, Margalit concurs that the change at the head of the municipality was the impetus for a more significant change in the attitude of the residents. "There's no question about it, Barkat represents a real alternative for young, educated, successful people, so they support him and they react whenever they realize someone is trying to take things in another direction." "We all share great hopes for a change in this city with the arrival to power of Barkat," says city councilor Yakir Segev of Barkat's Jerusalem Will Succeed party, who is in charge of the east Jerusalem portfolio at city hall. "The change can be seen especially on the university campuses. The students awoke. They are very active, involved, there's a lot of activity on the campuses and in the city. The students, with the New Spirit association, work together with the people who formed the action group of residents of Kiryat Yovel (against the haredization of the neighborhood). Things are moving. So it is not surprising that the same teenagers and students come to show support for the mayor's decision to open a parking lot for us and for visitors - it is a natural outcome." New Spirit, the association Barkat created by the end of his first year at the head of the city council opposition, was already a part of his vision, a tool to enable young people and especially students to take part in the city's life and to participate in the shaping of its future. It is not clear if Barkat imagined that the day would come when they would return the avid support he gave them. Young people are an inherent part of Barkat's vision, some say his strategy. Almost all his activities during his six years on the city council opposition were aimed at benefiting the young generation, those he wants to keep here at almost any price. This attitude did not change once he became mayor. On the contrary, less than a month ago Barkat initiated and signed a special contract to promote the rights of young people in the city. "It's not difficult to understand why Barkat has become a sort of hero of the local young generation," explains the city council member. "He is the first mayor who to take them into consideration; and even more than that, he is the first mayor whose vision and agenda are based on the roles and tasks of the young generation. The poor, the underprivileged, the traditional clients of the welfare department - he certainly wants to improve their situation. He is a good man, but his economic-political view is liberal, based on those who succeed. It's even, perhaps unconsciously, the name of his party. Barkat believes in those who strive to succeed - and who fits that vision more than the youth and the students? "So what we have here is an interaction between two groups that complement each other. And now, when he made a move and he is under attack from the haredi extremists and quite a few of the 'ancients' who think he didn't handle the matter wisely, the young supporters show up at his side and give him back what he gave them before," says the council member. "Our demonstrations were indeed launched to show support for Barkat," says Segev. "They were not so much against the haredim as they were organized to send a clear message that we trust Nir and we give him full support. That was the situation on Thursday evening, and it became even more intense on Friday morning after he decided to close the parking lot for two weeks in order to seek an alternative solution. "Of course, we also thought that closing the parking lot after the outburst of violence might be misinterpreted. That's why it became more imperative to support Barkat because we believe him when he says he wants to open the parking lot. There's no way he won't open it; he can't afford to give in here." Segev, like other members of the city council coalition, is aware of the problematic part played by the haredi city council members, and he doesn't hesitate to say openly what many others murmur in the corridors: "That will be their test. If they can't help in such a matter, what are they doing in the coalition anyway? Barkat needs the support of the entire coalition." Michal Sternberg is in charge of activities at New Spirit. She says, "The quick and strong mobilization of our people is not surprising, at least not for us. We've seen for the past six years how much more deeply involved our members are becoming in anything connected with this city's life. What we are seeing now is the outspoken part that was there already and it's all because of the election of Barkat: a young, secular, modern mayor who speaks our language. We have been working hard to organize the association and its members, and now we see the results and they are more than encouraging. "It's even becoming much easier to pass on our messages via mobile phones and the Internet, and the students all come and take part. Our organization includes students from the Hebrew University, Bezalel, Hit'orerut, Meretz, and we recently created the coalition of all these groups into one called 'A Free Jerusalem.'" Sternberg, a native of the Golan Heights, studies sociology at the HU and is in charge of the various artistic projects led by the New Spirit association. "We will wait two weeks. We trust Nir and we support his decision. Of course, it is not always wise to give up in the face of violence, and I think that some of the haredim will misinterpret Barkat's decision. But we also fully support his desire not to add to the violence we have already experienced." Sternberg adds that among the participants at the last demonstration organized by the secular on Saturday were many young families, including quite a few religious ones, "who believe in a pluralistic city without violence or coercion. And that is why we are so strict in respecting the regulations of Shabbat in these demonstrations: We do not use megaphones, we invite people who live within walking distance and the like," she says. It has nothing to do with hatred of the religious or haredim," insists Meirav Cohen, "but it has very much to do with the way we see this city. We love Jerusalem, we want to live here, to stay here, so we need to know that we are comfortable here, that we can live in a pluralistic environment that offers us ways to build our future here. We were the engine behind Barkat's election to power because we knew that by changing the person at the head, we would be able to bring about a more significant change as well." Rahel Azaria is a young Orthodox woman and member of Barkat's coalition. "I have received Nir's personal commitment that he will open the parking lot, and I can tell you, as a religious woman, it has nothing to do with Shabbat issues or transgression. I believe him when he says he will open it because it is evidently a test for many other issues." All agree that the Safra parking lot is much more than a parking issue. "We don't really care if it's Safra or Karta or anything else," say Allalu and Segev. "I trust Barkat that he wants to open a facility for visitors on the weekend, and we give him the support he needs now," says Allalu. "But what we are fighting for now is much more important than a parking issue; it is the future of the city, and ours too," concludes Berkovitch. From a perspective of time, former city council Anat Hoffman, who served for 14 years when Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert were mayors, says there is no doubt that the election of Barkat is the key to understanding the change in the secular residents' attitude. "Had Meir Porush been elected, we of course wouldn't have had to confront riots following the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat. But on the other hand, things would have been going on the same way - meaning without any hope to see a change, with increasing numbers of young and secular leaving the city, and without any chance of seeing Jerusalem residents fighting to regain their place in their city. Barkat has definitely brought in the winds of hope, and this is the result."