Visit Jerusalem on Shabbes
Ultra-Orthodox leaders called on their people to take to the streets not because of a contentious parking lot but for another simple reason: They need to remind the world that they're still around.
"The situation is favorable," said a leader of the ultra-Orthodox protests in Jerusalem last weekend, "the days are long." The approaching summer, the Jerusalem weather (lovely this time of year), and perhaps a desire to offer alternative entertainment to the Israel and Jerusalem film festivals provide as silly an explanation as any for the tumultuous protest near Jerusalem's Safra Square, and for the protests that will follow.
The head of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss, called Mayor Nir Barkat an "evil, evil man." It's a curse that may soon become a blessing, because there's nothing like curses from the ultra-Orthodox to increase Barkat's popularity among secular people. There are many reasons for the ultra-Orthodox community to regret Barkat's election to office, and we can only hope that many more will come soon. May his plans to develop Jerusalem's cultural scene, turn it into a world tourism center and improve its appearance succeed and flourish. But a precondition for all this is fixing the city's traffic problems, including the lack of parking spaces when hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Jerusalem from around the globe.
Barkat wants secular people to move to Jerusalem as a counterweight to the growing majority of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox. But this and all the other excellent reasons listed above are not why the ultra-Orthodox are taking to the streets. Desecration of the Sabbath is not the reason, either; everyone understands that parking a car on Shabbat is no more a desecration than endlessly driving around looking for a parking spot on streets where Shabbat traffic is already allowed.
Eda's leaders called on their faithful to take to the streets in their thousands, even though the opening of the parking lot had been coordinated with the city council's ultra-Orthodox members, and despite attempts by the mayor to negotiate with them. The leaders called on their people to take to the streets for a simple reason: They need to remind the world that they're still around. They're not represented in City Hall or government institutions and they're not a part of any agreement, so protest is the only way to establish themselves as a key interest group. The demonstrations, like the shouts of "Shabbes" and "Nazis," define them, like movement defines a wave.
Jerusalem's Shabbat wars are far from new. The first occurred in June 1948. But even earlier, in April, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta called for a massive uprising against the very idea of a Jewish state. Since then, the Haredi community has used these wars to define itself and for ultra-Orthodox politicians to gain powerful positions in the community, as they try to take over the city from the secular Jews inch by inch, mile by mile.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who lit one of the ceremonial torches on Independence Day, had built himself a fine career on leading the Eda Haredim's Shabbat wars in the 1980s. These were happy days. I particularly remember being chased by a mounted woman police officer, who saw me as a representative of the secular public, with renowned Jerusalem journalists creating a human chain to protect me.
Ultra-Orthodox children and adults would depart their gatherings on Shabbat Square in Mea She'arim and visit the secular areas to throw stones and used diapers. They would shout "Shabbes" and "Nazis" at the secular civilians and police, all under the command of latter-day torch-lighter Meshi-Zahav, whose nickname then was "operations officer." These demonstrations were an important unifying experience not only for Eda Haredit - which was then perceived as ignorant, militant and extra-loud - but for the secular residents, who felt united before a common foe.
Who won these battles is well-known. Barkat did not give up his dream to take Jerusalem back to its good old days. It may well be that more than the parking lot, more than restorations of historic buildings in the city center, more than increases in the culture budget, the ultra-Orthodox will help him the most. Clear mountain air, summer dusk and a good protest - could there be better reasons to drive up to Jerusalem on a Saturday, especially now, when the days are long?