Jerusalem women - AP - November 7, 2011
An ultra-Orthodox man walking past a vandalized poster of a woman in Jerusalem. Photo by AP
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Someone just woke up and discovered that women have been banished from advertising billboards throughout Jerusalem. Good morning! The Modesty Police has been ruling the streets for years and none of you have done anything about it.

I am normally very skeptical of conspiracy theories, because that is what they are, theories, and because I have actually met some of the conspiracists. But even I sometimes wonder if a group of rabbis did not get together at some point at the end of the 1990s and hatch a plan to take over the state of Israel by legal and democratic means.

When I began reporting on the capital’s ultra-Orthodox community 14 years ago for the local Kol Ha’ir weekly, Jerusalem was still gripped by the weekly mass demonstration on Bar-Ilan Road. Tens of thousands of Haredi men gathered every Shabbat to prevent drivers from passing through this main transportation artery. These were not peaceful protests: stones were thrown, batons wielded and arrests made. And then, all of a sudden, the protests ended, the faithful remained at home, lingering over their Shabbat lunch or taking postprandial naps. Jerusalem police were allowed a brief weekend respite. What had happened? It wasn’t just the Bar-Ilan demos that ceased; five decades of Haredi mass protests in Jerusalem came to an end on February 14, 1999, when over a quarter of a million ultra-Orthodox men and women blocked the main entrance to the city, protesting against the “anti-religious” rulings of the Supreme Court.

These demonstrations began at the beginning of the 1950s when the entire religious community gathered in Jerusalem to protest against the laws passed by the government to enlist women in the army. They evolved into riots against the passage of cars in the streets of the city on Shabbat, against the “desecration” of corpses in the hospital pathological departments and in archaeological digs, against the construction of a new municipal football stadium. The holy causes were varied but they had one thing in common: they all failed. Women are drafted ‏(religious girls are exempted through the “religion and conscience” clause‏); Jerusalem has remained open seven days a week, except in predominately ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; pathologists continue to dissect cadavers and Teddy Stadium was built in the south of the city.

For 50 years, Israel remained a Jewish secular state with the Haredi community living in a small semi-autonomous enclave according to their customs. And then they changed tactics. In 1996 two leaders came to power in Jerusalem. In March, Rabbi Yaacov Alter was anointed as the Seventh Admor of the Ger Hasidic dynasty. Three months later, Benjamin Netanyahu confounded all polls by beating Shimon Peres and being elected prime minister. Alter, the most powerful Hasidic rabbi in Israel, was opposed to violence and demonstrations and directed his representatives in City Hall and the Knesset to work within the system. Netanyahu promised that in his administration, if they joined his coalition, the Haredi parties would be given an unprecedented division of power. Other changes were afoot. Ill health had forced Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the fiery leader of the other main Haredi branch, the “Lithuanians,” to withdraw from the public arena ‏(he passed away in 2001‏). The new Lithuanian leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was also a firm believer in soft power. Hidden from secular view, other forces were at work. A young Haredi generation that had grown up in modern Israel was not so willing to live in a ghetto. They wanted to be a part of the establishment and the rabbis were prepared to accommodate them, on Haredi terms.

A precedent had already been set in the 1993 municipal elections when a last-minute agreement with the rabbis enabled Ehud Olmert to topple eternal Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The ultra-Orthodox parties entered the city’s administration, gaining control of municipal departments, a lion’s share of the city budget and widespread planning concessions. The Olmert-Haredi alliance won a second term in 1998 and the mayor who by then was already planning his return to national politics gave them all the rest. In 2003, Olmert left and the rabbi’s man, Uri Lupolianski, became the first Haredi mayor of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, on the streets of the city a fundamental change was taking place. You could open up a restaurant or pub or drugstore on Shabbat and serve non-kosher dishes without bearded men picketing your business. But the customer base was rapidly shrinking. While huge affordable neighborhoods were being built for the ultra-Orthodox and religious communities, secular middle-class families were being priced out of the housing market. In less than a decade, entire residential areas in the city’s north and central sectors had changed identity, forcing an aging nonreligious population into ever shrinking quarters. City Hall closed school after school for lack of young families in the area, but there was always necessary funding for a tiny Hasidic sect that opened a new heder.

The Edison Cinema, which for over 50 years was a focal point for violent riots against its screening of movies on Shabbat, closed its doors in 1995, not because of the violence. The entire area had become Haredi and film-goers just stopped arriving. Eleven years later, the site was bought by the Satmar Hasids for building new apartments. The nearby Jerusalem trade union headquarters, for a generation the bastion of the secular labor movement, had already been taken over by Shas.

Only a fanatical ultra-religious minority still demonstrate in Jerusalem. The rest of the Haredi community has realized long ago that there is no need for protests when you control all the necessary committees and budgets. And secular mayor Nir Barkat has not changed that situation in any way since being elected in 2008, thanks to a rare intra-haredi split. His coalition is also dominated by the religious parties. The secret municipal committee that censors all advertising publicly displayed in Jerusalem has two Haredi members and a third secular member who hasn’t attended meetings for years. Last week he admitted that he thought the committee had been disbanded.

Why blame advertisers for authorizing billboards in Jerusalem that don’t show female faces or bodies? No official poster of City Hall has shown a woman or even a girl for a decade and, if a billboard gets defaced no one, not even Jerusalem police, will take any action.

So far, the secular community’s attempt to fight back, after they finally realized what has been going on for years, has been ineffectual. A few posters with pictures of local women and their daughters were pasted on walls in the city and quickly torn down. Last Friday three simultaneous women’s demonstrations were held, but the largest one took place in liberal Tel-Aviv.

But maybe it’s a good thing that citizens in other parts of the country are taking action. The Jerusalem Syndrome is being replicated in other cities. Bet Shemesh and Safed have already undergone similar transformations. As long as Yaakov Litzman is deputy health minister, a new hospital wing will not be built in Ashkelon because of rumors of ancient skeletons found on the site and don’t hold your breath, there will be no affordable housing for young secular couples while Shas’ Ariel Atias is housing minister.

Israel’s political class has long ago sold Jerusalem off to the ultra-Orthodox. The deal was legal and democratic and if Israelis don’t wake up, it won’t stop in the capital.