In Jerusalem’s cul­ture war, sec­u­lar res­i­dents make gains


Crowds of an­gry ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish men, wear­ing long beards, black and white garb and large black hats, protested in the streets of Jerusalem ear­lier this month against a new cin­ema open­ing its doors on the Sab­bath.

The demon­stra­tion was meant to be a show of strength in a lon­grun­ning dis­pute over the role of strict Jewish law in the cul­tural life of Jerusalem. But in many ways, it was also a sign of des­per­a­tion af­ter a se­ries of gains by the city’s sec­u­lar com­mu­nity in re­cent years.

“No one’s say­ing we’re giv­ing up,” said Sh­muel Pop­pen­heim, an unof­fi­cial spokesman for the ul­tra­Ortho­dox com­mu­nity. But, he con­ceded, “We know it’s a lost cause. ... We know that we can’t stage a war” over ev­ery new es­tab­lish­ment open on the Sab­bath.

De­spite Jerusalem’s im­age as a city that grinds to a halt on the Sab­bath, which runs from sun­down Fri­day to sun­down Satur­day, more than 200 cafes, restau­rants, bars, cine­mas, mu­se­ums, cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and other en­ter­tain­ment cen­ters now stay open in non-re­li­gious Jewish ar­eas of the city.

That is a ma­jor shift over the last 30 years from a time when only a hand­ful of es­tab­lish­ments stayed open and a law for­bade cine­mas from op­er­at­ing on the Sab­bath. The “Yes Planet” cin­ema that drew the re­cent protests was the sec­ond ma­jor des­ti­na­tion to open with Sab­bath hours in the past two years, af­ter a for­mer train sta­tion re­opened as a com­mer­cial cen­ter in 2013.

These ini­tia­tives have con­trib­uted to the most no­table shift in sec­u­lar­reli­gious re­la­tions since the early 1990s, said Sha­har Ilan of Hid­dush, a group that ad­vo­cates for re­li­gious equal­ity.

For decades ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties have flexed their po­lit­i­cal mus­cle, some­times vi­o­lently, to keep work­places, busi­nesses and gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions in Jerusalem’s Jewish neigh­bor­hoods shut down for the Sab­bath.

While most Jewish Is­raelis are sec­u­lar, Is­rael’s found­ing fathers gave Ju­daism a for­mal place in the coun­try’s af­fairs, and Ortho­dox rab­bis strictly gov­ern re­li­gious events such as wed­dings, di­vorces and buri­als for the Jewish pop­u­la­tion. The ul­tra-Ortho­dox also are peren­nial king­mak­ers in Is­raeli coali­tion pol­i­tics, though they make up only about 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion.

Their in­flu­ence is es­pe­cially pro­nounced in Jerusalem, where their num­bers are pro­por­tion­ally much larger than the na­tional av­er­age. Jerusalem is split al­most evenly into thirds be­tween sec­u­lar and mod­ern Ortho­dox res­i­dents, Mus­lim Pales­tini­ans and ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews who live in in­su­lar en­claves.

Jerusalem’s ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties also tra­di­tion­ally have held sig­nif­i­cant power in the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment. They are bol­stered by laws and un­writ­ten agree­ments that grant them cer­tain pro­tec­tions, such as bar­ri­ers to pre­vent cars from driv­ing through re­li­gious ar­eas on the Sab­bath, said Me­nachem Fried­man, a pro­fes­sor of Ju­daism at Bar Ilan Univer­sity.

At­tempts to change Jerusalem’s del­i­cate bal­ance have prompted vi­o­lent back­lashes from the ul­tra­Ortho­dox, who have blocked roads, clashed with po­lice and sent tens of thou­sands of ac­tivists into the streets on their rab­bis’ or­ders.

But Fried­man said that con­trary to the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion, the tra­di­tional power of the ul­tra-Ortho­dox is wan­ing in ar­eas where they are not a de­mo­graphic ma­jor­ity due to chang­ing ge­o­graphic and eco­nomic pres­sures.

Jerusalem’s ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties are of­ten poor and de­pend on gov­ern­ment hand­outs be­cause men tra­di­tion­ally study in re­li­gious sem­i­nar­ies rather than work. With the cost of liv­ing in Jerusalem on the rise, younger mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ties are in­creas­ingly mov­ing out, while public sup­port for their sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial aid is wan­ing, Fried­man said.

This month’s protests over the Yes Planet cin­ema com­plex were there­fore more “sym­bolic” op­po­si­tion rather than a real con­certed fight, Fried­man said. The cin­ema is lo­cated in Abu Tor, a mixed JewishArab neigh­bor­hood far from the city’s ul­tra-Ortho­dox ar­eas.

On the first night of protests on Aug. 14, sev­eral thou­sand ul­tra­Ortho­dox ri­oted in West Jerusalem, break­ing win­dows and prompt­ing po­lice ar­rests. But the fol­low­ing evening, just a few hun­dred de­mon­stra­tors both­ered to show up.

It was a vivid con­trast to weekly ri­ots that rocked the city in 2009 when City Hall al­lowed a park­ing lot near Jerusalem’s Old City to open on the Sab­bath to serve tourists.

The train sta­tion-turned-mall known as “First Sta­tion,” mean­while, has re­mained open on the Sab­bath with­out any protests for more than two years now.

The bat­tle is far from over. A week af­ter Yes Planet opened, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity or­dered eight min­i­mar­kets in Jerusalem’s city cen­ter that now op­er­ate on week­ends to close.

City coun­cil­man Ofer Berkovitz, a vo­cal sec­u­lar ac­tivist, ac­cused Mayor Nir Barkat of mak­ing the move to com­pen­sate for the new cin­ema — a charge the mayor de­nies.

In another re­cent case, po­lit­i­cal pres­sure pre­vented a pop­u­lar cafe chain from open­ing a new branch in Jerusalem’s In­de­pen­dence Park, which is gov­ern­ment prop­erty.

Since a res­tau­rant can­not re­ceive a kosher li­cense if it is open on the Sab­bath, Is­rael’s of­fi­cial li­cens­ing body threat­ened to re­voke Landwer Cafe’s cer­tifi­cate na­tion­wide if the new branch opened on the Sab­bath, Berkovitz said. The same owner opened a cof­fee shop un­der a dif­fer­ent name that op­er­ates on the Sab­bath.

The mu­nic­i­pal­ity also has re­fused to al­low another cin­ema com­plex, Cin­ema City, to open on the Sab­bath be­cause it is built on prop­erty leased by the city. Berkovitz and other city coun­cil mem­bers ap­pealed to the Supreme Court but lost.

Barkat said in an email state­ment that “there is no change in the law or the sta­tus quo which has been ac­cepted through­out the years in Jerusalem ac­cord­ing to which cine­mas, places of en­ter­tain­ment and restau­rants op­er­ate on the Sab­bath and there is no trade or public trans­porta­tion.”

Rabbi Uri Regev of Hid­dush said the city has an “in­con­sis­tent” pol­icy when it comes to reg­u­lat­ing Sab­bath ac­tiv­i­ties. “There is no sta­tus quo,” Regev said, say­ing these poli­cies re­main in flux and are “not di­vinely inspired.”


In this May 28, 2014 file photo, Ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews watch peo­ple wave Is­raeli flags out­side the Old City’s Damascus Gate dur­ing Jerusalem Day cel­e­bra­tions in Jerusalem. A re­cent demon­stra­tion by ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews against a new cin­ema open­ing its doors on the Sab­bath was meant to be a show of strength in a lon­grun­ning bat­tle over the role of strict Jewish law in the cul­tural life of Jerusalem. But in many ways, it was also a sign of des­per­a­tion af­ter a se­ries of gains by the city’s sec­u­lar com­mu­nity in re­cent years.

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