Seeking sensationalism?

A British visitor finds himself on the receiving end of police batons during the anti-gay riots in Mea She'arim.

haredi riot flames (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi riot flames
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As I walked down the hill toward Shabbat Square in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim last Monday night I could already see smoke rising. Neighborhood children took upon themselves the responsibility of telling me and another reporter that cameras were not allowed. Nearby, teenagers were pulling down signposts and setting trash bins and bus shelters aflame. Adults stood around making conversation as the fires burned. An occasional firecracker exploded. The atmosphere was intense without being intimidating. The few haredim there who spoke English were happy enough to tell me what they thought of the situation. It had been clear earlier in the afternoon that people in the neighborhood were on edge. A bookseller asked my colleague whether he would be protesting against "the shit people" on Friday - the day of the Gay Pride Parade. When I asked who he meant, he turned to me and said: "You are a liar, you have the face of a liar. Are you English? You English are stupid liars." As the evening wore on people seemed less hostile toward us. An old man told me that he thought the riots were bringing great shame upon his community. He said that while protest was permitted, violence was not. At the same time he argued that homosexuality was an offense against the natural order of life, which God had created. The parade would desecrate the holy city, the center of three great religions. I ASKED a teenager who was originally from Manchester why he was rioting. He said that he and his friends had been instructed to do so by a "Rabbi Weiss." Another friend was under the charge of a different rabbi, who had told him not to riot - so he was just watching. The protests had been running their course for a couple of hours, when suddenly a young man ran down the hill screaming, "Police!" Everyone who had been actively participating in stoking the flames fled. The people left were mainly middle-aged men standing on shop doorsteps. The police marched down in riot gear, then - about 50 meters from the square - broke formation. Two mounted policemen moved to the front as those on foot fell in behind them. No attempt was made to pursue the perpetrators. Instead two policemen on horseback proceeded to beat bystanders without regard for any outward sign of hostility. I was charged down twice myself and beaten with a truncheon once, even though I was standing at the side of the road and was clearly not wearing haredi garb - in fact, I'm not even Jewish! Policemen on foot stood around apparently unsure what to do next. In the hour or so that I was there they made no apparent effort to put out the fires. My reaction to the police response was one of bemusement. If they were going to intervene, why wait? It had been clear all day that there was going to be a riot. Why did they make no attempt to control the vandalism? Why were they beating bystanders who were offering absolutely no resistance? When I put these questions to a police spokesman, all he could tell me was that the police felt threatened, and that the previous night a Molotov cocktail had been thrown at them by a rioter. As for beating bystanders, he said if I wanted to pursue the matter I could file a complaint. WHAT I witnessed in Mea She'arim underscored for me the dangers posed to civil society by overly-powerful religious dogmatists. Israeli authorities seemed reluctant to face down the bullies. In Britain, we face similar problems. In January, for instance, the British government effectively blackmailed newspapers into not publishing those Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a way some Muslims found offensive. Like the police in Jerusalem, British authorities said they could not guarantee public safety were the papers to publish the offending illustrations. In Mea She'arim the problem is amplified by the fact that the haredim seem to be expressing - albeit violently - the will of Jerusalem's majority - anyway, that's how it seems. Plainly, the police could have done more to ensure that the sparks of violence and vandalism were stamped out before they became a fire. The haredi rioters would have put up almost no resistance. They fled at the first sight of authority. But what did the police do? They beat up a few people for the television cameras (which, by strange coincidence, arrived with them), so that people watching at home, not understanding the wider context, might believe that the police were dealing with actual rioters. The police could have dealt with this entire issue before so much damage was done, and in a less dramatic fashion. Perhaps because their sympathies were with the haredim they allowed the situation to fester rather than make the city safe for the parade. The writer is a recent graduate of London University. He is currently a Jerusalem Post intern.