Return of the Shabbat wars

Nir Barkat has been accused of being a novice for his handling of the opening of the Kikar Safra parking lot, but for the haredi community that was just the final straw.

haredi shabbat riot 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi shabbat riot 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Mayor Nir Barkat experienced a rude awakening regarding the realities of Jerusalem politics last weekend when thousands of haredim rioted in response to his opening of the Kikar Safra parking lot on Shabbat. Until now, Barkat had been engaged in what seemed like a honeymoon with the haredim, whom he had edged out of office to take the municipal race six months ago. The former hi-tech entrepreneur, who ran on a platform aimed at revitalizing the city's disgruntled secular population, had created a wall-to-wall coalition after taking office, hoping to achieve a modus vivendi with the haredim. However, last weekend's events provided a reminder, if one was needed, that in such matters it is the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit that sets the tone. Barkat has no plans to back down - the parking lot is set to open again this weekend - and his spokesman Evyatar Elad says the mayor will speak only with his coalition partners and not with representatives of the anti-zionist groups who were behind Saturday's riots. The haredim for their part are planning a massive prayer assembly for Friday. Barkat's handling of the affair shows him up as a novice, says Chaim Miller, a former deputy mayor under Ehud Olmert and a Gur hassid. "It all happened because of the mayor's lack of experience," says Miller. "He didn't consult anyone before he made his decision [about the parking lot]. He is surrounded by inexperienced people who can't tell the difference between a hassid and a mitnaged." Barkat's inexperience aside, the question remains: What was the real reason behind the riots? The pashkevilim in the streets of Mea She'arim note the "terrible breach in the walls of the holy Shabbat caused by the Zionist municipality," rhetoric that has been rarely used recently. Various figures from within the haredi community have said that the fact that Kikar Safra is a public parking lot and not a private location was what sparked the haredi community's ire. However, given that the Eda Haredit usually boycotts the public place in question, namely the Jerusalem municipality, the situation is, in fact, not so clear-cut. Yahadut Hatorah MK Uri Maklev, a former deputy mayor under Barkat's predecessor Uri Lupolianski, says the opening of the Kikar Safra parking lot is a breach of the status quo and that is the reason for the outburst of hostility and violence. "The Safra parking lot is part of the municipality, which symbolizes something public - and that is unacceptable," says Maklev. But city councilor Meir Turgeman, the head of the one-man opposition at city hall and a former member of Barkat's party, says the parking lot is just a symptom. "For the haredi community, this mayor's attitude is a big disappointment," says Turgeman. "They feel rejected and humiliated in many other goings-on at Kikar Safra. For them, it is as if the winners have decided to show them publicly who the new bosses are. "It's a shame. I am a member of the planning committee, which was formerly in haredi hands. I can tell you about construction plans in their neighborhoods that have already been approved and are now being brought back for additional discussion as if someone wanted to make them feel totally insecure. "I do not advocate the use of violence, but frankly I am not surprised. The city attorney is closing the haredi synagogues and kindergartens located in secular neighborhoods; they cannot build housing for their children. No wonder there's a lot of resentment there." However, Meretz councilor Meir Margalit blames the outburst on internal haredi politics. "This is more a retaliation from the rabbis against the haredi politicians than an open war against the the city's secular population," says Margalit. "It's been a while now that the spiritual leaders, the rabbis, have been dissatisfied - to put it mildly - with the behavior, namely the independence expressed by their politicians, who decide and move forward without asking them too much. They don't like it, and they express their disapproval. In other words, it is their way of saying loudly and clearly, 'Don't forget who is in charge here.'" One man who can perhaps explain why 6,000 haredim turned out in their best Shabbat outfits to fight a pitched battle with police only a stone's throw from an area where restaurants and bars have been open on Shabbat for the last few years is Shlomo Papenheim, one of the leaders of the Eda Haredit community. Born in Germany, Papenheim came to Jerusalem 70 years ago, but his polite manners and yekkish accent have not faded, a fact that makes it hard to believe he was party to the events of last Saturday. "We understand this kulturkampf. We, of course, believe that all Israel is the guardian of all Jews. We see the secular population as Jews. We are responsible for them, and we strongly believe that the future of our people in the Land of Israel depends on our ability to keep the Torah, at least the minimum - Shabbat, of course," Papenheim tells In Jerusalem. "Thus any breach threatens us and causes us much anxiety. We understand that the secular want to live their lives as they wish; they have only one day free in the week, and here they miss what is available in Tel Aviv. We want to keep the status quo as it has been agreed upon for 60 years, but we see that the secular are saying, '60 years, it's enough.' But we want Jerusalem to remain holy. We don't want to end up like the Vatican and Rome, where they allow a gay pride parade; or like Cologne, the most Catholic city in Germany, which holds the biggest gay pride parade. We want to save and to preserve the holy character of Jerusalem. Every breach threatens us. Why don't they [the municipality] look for a place that is not official for this parking? Why of all places the municipality parking? They should look for a place that is not establishment, not official," he says. "You know," Papenheim continues, "contrary to what the secular think, we have no interest in haredizing the secular neighborhoods. We just need some place to live for our families and children, and as soon as we obtain the right to build in our neighborhoods, you won't see us there. We understand that we cannot live together, and you can't either. But what is this hatred about? What is our sin? That we are ready to pay full price for apartments available in Kiryat Yovel that no one ever dreamed of selling at those prices? We need to live somewhere, don't we? You know, it could be worse. If we have no choice, we might invade empty buildings and squat or, even worse, install a wide tent city in the city center. Just imagine the world media reporting on how observant Jews are treated in the State of Israel, forced to live in tents with children because no one wants them in their neighborhoods. "Believe me, we don't want to live in a secular neighborhood. The constructions there do not meet our needs, anyway. We need Shabbat escalators, we need special balconies for our succas and lots of other things. But extremism always flourishes, on both sides, when people act foolishly. As someone who participates in a lot of encounters with the secular population and with Muslims, I say that only talking and tolerance can enable each one to live according to his own beliefs. In regard to the current tension, I believe that Barkat is a tolerant man, thus I believe he will find a way to a just solution. I am even ready to meet with him in order to find such a solution. And in any case, I am strongly opposed to any religious coercion," says Papenheim. Someone who is worried by what he sees is haredi media personality Dudi Zilbershlag. "The situation is very serious. To grasp it completely, you have to take recent history into account," Zilbershlag says. "For the last decade, the "Shabbat wars" have ceased. Why? Because the haredi community, who felt powerful and in control with a large representation of haredim on the city council and a haredi mayor, could overlook a few transgressions here and there. But now things have changed. The current situation is volatile, so everyone involved should be very careful not to jeopardize it any further. It is clear that this move was launched by the most fervent extremists. "But nevertheless, even I would consider participating in these demonstrations because they touch something very deep inside. And believe me, it frightens even me. I think I know Barkat well. I know that he wants to remain in office more than one term. He has a mandate for that from the secular and the religious Zionist communities. I had an opportunity to witness his nobility: Even though he knew that I totally supported his opponent Meir Porush, once the elections were behind us he made peace with me from a very noble position, and for that I have a lot of respect for him. At the moment, a capitulation toward both or one of the sides is not wise. But something has to be done quickly because these demonstrations and riots are plunging the city into a perilous position, including the empowerment of the anti-Zionist sides that exist here." How does Zilbershlag explain the fact that the Eda Haredit, which should in fact celebrate the failure of the representatives of the Yahadut Hatorah party, is the main power behind the demonstration? "In a way, it is surprising," he says. "Logically, one would expect the members of Aguda to play it tough against Barkat's administration, since they are the ones who have lost the battle of the elections. But here it is davka the Eda Haredit who, in fact, is against any sharing or cooperation and boycott the elections. Nevertheless, they have decided, for their own reasons, to launch this move. It is a disaster; it is absurd. We were into a steady process of calming down, and now this. It will ruin everything we've been working on for years. I don't have to tell who I am and what I stand for. But for someone like me, who has been working so hard to find a common denominator, when I see the secular demonstrators holding up placards comparing us - meaning comparing me as a shomer Shabbat - to Ahmadinejad and Jerusalem to Teheran, how should I feel in the face of this ignobility? Why play into the hands of the extremists from both sides?" he says. Haredi affairs specialist Shahar Ilan writes in his blog that the agitation should be regarded as a result of the economic crisis. According to Ilan, the outburst is the only way available for the Eda Haredit to prepare for its annual fund-raising campaign. Since this community doesn't accept any money from the state, their financial situation is difficult and the poverty among the families in the community is unbearable. In order to get the expected financial support from their communities abroad, they need to present some achievements, such as media images of their members ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the sanctity of Shabbat. For Yonathan, a young haredi who lives in Mea She'arim, that is not to be ruled out. Though, he explains, there is more. "It is true that they [the Eda Haredit] suffer from poverty in a way that people from abroad cannot even imagine. So, of course, when their brethren in the United States or in England see the pictures of what they are ready to endure for defending the sanctity of Shabbat and Jerusalem, it makes them more willing to send them money. But - hard to believe as it might sound for a secular person - being ready to give their life, 'mesirut nefesh' we call it, is a real achievement. And for the people of Eda Haredit, who are not spoiled by the state's money and support, it means that they are better, that they have managed to stay pure, that they haven't sold out their ideology for a bunch of shekels - I wouldn't condemn or underestimate that." In any case, Mayor Barkat was not, apparently, the only one taken by surprise by the Eda Haredit, whatever their aims. "The Eda Haredit has decided to launch riots. It was not agreed upon with us, the haredim of Agudat Israel and Degel Hatorah" explains with more than an ounce of frustration Shlomo Rosenstein, city councilor from Yahadut Hatorah and in charge of the transportation portfolio in the haredi community (separated bus lines) and at the municipality. "But once it is about the Shabbat issue, we had no choice but to join. There is no way we haredim will stand aside while our brethren from Eda Haredit fight the Shabbat struggle for us. We also see the mayor's decision as a high risk to create a breach in the walls of Shabbat. Despite the fact that Rav Elyashiv [the leader of the haredi community] has not issued a ruling to urge us to demonstrate, still when we're talking about the holy Shabbat, it is obvious that in such a case, we will join them; there is no other option. Perhaps with what's happened now, the members of the Gur hassidut, who by joining Barkat prevented Meir Porush from winning the municipal elections, now have some regrets regarding their attitude. Had they supported the Porush candidacy, we wouldn't be where we stand now, would we?" Rosenstein is not alone. "We, the Yahadut Hatorah, were not the initiators of these demonstrations," says Maklev, "and while I cannot exactly say that we were dragged into this, we were not there totally of our own will. I believe this is also a part of the internal needs and interests of the Eda Haredit to draw attention and to prove that they are still here and strong. For the last few years they have been lacking the prestigious rabbis they once had. We didn't see it that way, but we had no choice. Once the protest is about Shabbat, there is no way we can stand on the sidelines or be indifferent - it's Shabbat; it supersedes everything. You can see by comparing what happened in Kiryat Yovel or around the mikve issue in Beit Hakerem, there were no such reactions from our communities there because those were different issues. They are important, of course, but nothing can be compared to Shabbat issues. And, of course, you have the extremists on both sides who always act to advance their own interests." One thing is clear by now: Barkat in his decision to choose the Kikar Safra parking lot was relying on Rosenstein and one of his deputies, Itzhak Pindrus from Yahadut Hatorah. According to sources in Kikar Safra, the two assured him they had obtained the silent approval of the rabbis. It turned out they didn't take into account the outraged reaction of the Eda Haredit who, to put it mildly, didn't appreciate the liberty taken by the two and decided to teach the "collaborator" representatives of the Orthodoxy a lesson. Barkat and the residents of the city, in any case, were the first to pay the price of the adventurous presumption of the two city councilors and a few more who stayed behind the scenes. "We are witnessing an extraordinary coincidence which led to what happened. On one hand you have the desire to incite animosity against Barkat among haredim; and on the other hand, the need to teach MK Litzman a lesson because he led the internal opposition to the Porush candidacy, which eventually led to the alliance with the seculars, something for which they cannot forgive him," explains Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder of Zaka and once the officer of the Eda Haredit. "You should read what was published recently in the newspaper close to the Porush clan, Hamevasser. It was the only one that announced in advance what was going to happen on Shabbat, while the other papers hardly mentioned a word about it," Meshi Zahav continues. "It's been weeks now that inside the haredi communities and the Eda Haredit, there's a lot of pressure around the mayor's activities versus the haredim: the Kiryat Yovel eruv lines, the kindergarten in Katamonim, the mikve in Beit Hakerem and now the parking - that was too much. This mayor hasn't for the moment solved even one of the problems he's been elected for - nothing but the parking on Shabbat, that's urgent, right?" He adds: When a private place is open on Shabbat we grieve for it but we can live with it; but we cannot remain silent when an open violation of the sanctity of Shabbat is done in a public place - he just doesn't understand this. There are two possibilities: either he has a clear agenda against the haredim or he is a total novice. Look, he has already dealt unfairly with the Arabs in Silwan, with the merchants in the city center, and now with us. But he has to understand - and the sooner the better - that he is dealing with wolves and foxes here, we are no novices." Meshi Zahav goes on: "And yes, there is also an internal account to be solved here between the Eda Haredit and the rest of the haredim. And what could be better than a Shabbat struggle? Here the Eda Haredit, a small group that doesn't get money from the state, like the guys from Aguda, they consider themselves as an elite unit - have managed to pull everyone behind their agenda. That is surely an achievement." "Besides that," he notes, "there's no question that Barkat is being very badly advised. First he is surrounded by a bunch of young men who have no experience and no idea; they cannot tell the difference between a haredi and a hassid. And secondly, he failed because his haredi coalition members failed him. They lied to him, they misinformed him, and he had no resources to find out for himself. That's why he was so surprised. I believe the demonstrations will go on for a few weeks. Meanwhile, it's up to him to find and propose a solution. You know, the haredim in general and the Eda Haredit in particular do not believe in the carrot-and-stick method. No doubt Barkat will have to deliver them some real goodies." On the opposite side of the divide, one thing is sure: It's been a long time since a secular mayor has enjoyed such support from the residents. "We wanted to make it clear that the city center belongs to the secular and the young" says Meirav Cohen, one of the leaders of the Hitorerut party and the woman behind the idea to bring secular supporters to demonstrate against the haredim on Saturday. "We called on our supporters and those who voted for us, the students, the residents, and they came. We thought that Barkat's decision was reasonable; and considering that he did whatever he could, it still didn't help. So we are going to be there whenever we are needed to be present. We want to give Barkat the support and the legitimacy from this part of the city's population." For Anat Hoffman, former city councilor and current head of the Israel religious action center of the Reform movement, the reasons behind this outburst of violence are clear and simple: "These people see that there's a young and successful mayor who is determined to develop the city, to bring in millions of tourists, and that is precisely what worries them. They watch with some anxiety the cooperation taking place between this secular mayor, who promotes economic and business achievements, and the Orthodox representatives on the city council, and they want to prevent this. They want to stay on the usual menu of poverty, lack of development and economic opportunities, which allows them to hold their constituency in the palm of their hands. It is that simple," she says.