Backlash to Shabbat parking lot closure gathers steam

"What we don't respect, and will not cave in to, is violence," says spokeswoman for capital's Hitorerut party.

parking lot demo 248.88  (photo credit: K. Rose)
parking lot demo 248.88
(photo credit: K. Rose)
While Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's decision to temporarily close a downtown city parking lot on Shabbat has calmed the extremist haredi street in the capital, a secular backlash to the decision, which began with a demonstration of their own last Saturday afternoon, is gathering steam. The parking lot issue - which began with a disagreement over its operating hours on Shabbat but has been propelled to encompass a battle over Jerusalem's character as the country's capital - was thrust to the forefront earlier this month, when thousands of haredi men rioted near the parking lot and then later in Mea She'arim at the outset of Shabbat, throwing rocks and bottles at police officers, injuring six of them. That violence was followed by additional calls from the Eda Haharedit organization to continue and even enlarge opposition to the parking lot, prompting Jerusalem Police to recommend that Barkat close it, which he did, announcing last week that it would be shut down for two weeks while a fitting alternative was discussed. But while Barkat's move effectively canceled additional protests by haredi Jerusalemites, the decision has also been viewed as capitulation to extremist violence by the capital's secular residents, whose political representation is now threatening to step up protests of their own. Hundreds of secular Jerusalemites gathered in front of City Hall last Saturday afternoon to protest the closing of the lot, and political groups like Meretz along with the local Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim (Awakening in Jerusalem) Party, say they plan to increase their efforts to pressure Barkat into reopening the lot. "This is a big test for the mayor," party spokeswoman Merav Cohen told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "Depending on what he does with the parking lot, it will send a much larger message to the residents of the capital, and beyond, about the character of the city." "On one level, we expect the mayor to hold true to promises he made [about refusing to bow to haredi pressure], but on another level, we expect him to fight for his constituents who voted for him on the basis that he was taking the city in a different direction - and not allow a minority of extremists to dictate the future of the capital." Cohen's remarks partly reflect the tenets her party was founded upon exactly a year ago this month - reclaiming Jerusalem for its secular young professional community and approaching public policy from a realistic, and not merely symbolic standpoint. "Jerusalem is not just a symbol, it's also a real city with a large population," a Hitorerut member told the Post last year, a month after the party's inception. But that outlook is precisely what the Eda Hahredit and other haredi groups oppose. For them, Jerusalem's importance, and opposition to the parking lot, is first based on the fact that the capital is a symbol - both as the holiest location in Judaism and as the historical governmental seat of Jewish rule. Based on that, any violation of Shabbat here, especially when it has municipality backing, must be opposed at all costs. Those costs, Jerusalemites have now been reminded, include violence, which Cohen said residents she's spoken with view as a tactic that has now been rewarded. "We're always on the street, talking with people, and meeting with residents," she said. "And the feeling in Jerusalem right now is that the haredim have been given a prize for their violence. I know it's not the entire community, but a group of their extremists. In fact, we meet with haredi leaders often, and we respect them, as they respect us. What we don't respect, and will not cave in to, is violence." Cohen expressed hope that a Thursday City Council meeting would find a way through the current impasse, but said if not, her group has already been making preparations to oppose the parking lot's further closure. "If the lot is not opened by next Shabbat [the end of the two-week period, as proposed by Barkat], we are going to hold a massive demonstration to voice our protest," she said. "And we won't stop until they've reopened it." The Forum of Organizations for a Free Jerusalem, a group of different citizen bodies including Hitorerut, met earlier this week and declared their commitment to "continuing the struggle" over the parking lot, especially if the date given by Barkat to settle the issue - June 27 - passes without a resolution of the matter. In the meantime, forum members also plan on participating in Thursday's City Council meeting and pressuring Barkat to reopen the lot. Also on Thursday, forum members plan on setting up a large clock at City Hall, featuring a countdown to the next Shabbat, when Barkat's decision is due. Throughout the week, forum members will move the clock to different points around the capital to "remind the city of what's going on." But further public demonstrations like last Saturday's will be held off until the "critical moment," Cohen explained. "It's not easy to get people together," she said. "And if we need to, if the mayor doesn't reopen the parking lot, it will be next Shabbat, when all of our voices will need to be heard." A written response from the municipality said that Barkat was committed to finding a solution to the problem and that the closing of the Safra parking lot was only a temporary measure. "The decision to close the parking lot is a temporary one only," the response read, "and was done to give all sides in the matter the ability to come together and discuss various options, while calming the immediate situation down."