Ticking time bomb in Jewish Quarter
Thirty-nine years after the unification of Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter resembles a busy, bubbling, shtibel, or neighborhood synagogue.
The following announcement was on the bulletin board at Yeshivat Hakotel in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City Monday: "Friday, 9:00-9:30 A.M., lesson in Rambam's Hilchot Avoda (rules of Temple worship); the Temple vessels and those who use them, given by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl." The public notice boards in the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter were plastered with posters offering "Torah scrolls written by scribes with certificates and recommendations from the Mishmeret Stam Institute;" "instrumental music and singing lessons for Levites;" and "How can we live without the Temple: When will we wake up? How long will we sleep?"
Thirty-nine years after the unification of Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter resembles a busy, bubbling, shtibel, or neighborhood synagogue. It has about 100 institutions, mainly synagogues, yeshivot and kollels for married men. The ultra-Orthodox are clearly in the majority. When the renovation of the quarter was completed in 1983, about 60 percent of the families living there were religious, the rest secular. Today, 70 percent are ultra-Orthodox, 25 percent are national-religious, and only five percent are secular. Haredi yeshiva students (most of whom are English-speaking) not only fill the religious institutions, but also run around with wheelbarrows from construction sites, and work in stores and restaurants.
Signs signifying the character of the neighborhood abound: "Roni Institute - Women's Torah Institute - Women's Division of the Diaspora Yeshiva;" "Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue and Beit Midrash, under the leadership of the Lubavitch Rebbe;" Aish Hatorah World Center;" "The Temple Institute." The flag of the outlawed, extreme right-wing Kach movement flies from a balcony, with its trademark fist and the legend, "You gave this as an inheritance."
The quarter looks like an exotic nature preserve, a feature that attracts both local and foreign tourists. They come to see the sights and hope to return home safely afterward. They are drawn to the dedicated activity of the yeshiva students chanting their Talmud, the long-sidelocked toddlers playing in kindergarten under the watchful eyes of their turbaned teachers, the blasts of the shofar emanating from Judaica stores, the kiosks with handwritten signs bearing the prices of the wares. But it is the pulse of a strange bubble, not a normal social fabric.
When former prime minister Levy Eshkol called Yehuda Tamir in 1967, and asked him to be in charge of settling Jews in East Jerusalem, the two agreed that most of the effort would be focused on creating new neighborhoods outside the Old City. Some cabinet ministers - Menachem Begin and Zerah Warhaftig, in particular - demanded that Jews be settled in the Old City as well, but Eshkol accepted Tamir's argument that it would be better to stop renovating the Jewish Quarter. When Tamir began that mission, he tried with all his might to turn it into a genuine residential area with a mixed population and productive lifestyle. He was aware of the possibility that it could become a magnet for the religious and Haredi communities and take on the characteristics of a museum. Thirty-nine years later, the gap between the dream and reality when it comes to the unification of Jerusalem is reflected in the image of the Jewish Quarter.
The Haredi community that currently takes up most of the quarter's 550 residential units includes a number of extremist groups whose proximity to the Western Wall is something of a ticking time bomb. There are supporters of Rabbi Kahane's Kach Movement living in the quarter. One of the yeshivot specializes in training priests for Temple worship. The Temple Institute focuses on making vessels for the Temple, and learning the Temple worship service. For these people, the aspiration to building the Temple is not an End of Days vision, but rather a positive commandment that must be observed every day. The ruling by Rabbi Yisrael, the founding head of the Temple Institute, according to which the Gaza disengagement is a calamity that struck the People of Israel because it neglected the Temple Mount is proof of this.