Controlling the Haredi Agenda

Six pairs of leg shackles were dragged down the corridor, rattling metallicly as the detainees trekked to the room of the duty judge in the Magistrate's Court. The heroes of the day hid their heads inside their elegant Shabbat coats, which they were wearing at the time of their arrest a day earlier, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood.

That was the price of participating in the stormy demonstration "to condemn the desecrators of Shabbat and their sponsors," who had opened a parking lot in the city center. The police claimed the six men had thrown stones and bottles at them and rolled burning garbage cans onto the road. Six policemen were wounded in the demonstration.

Inside the courtroom, the six detainees revealed their faces - panic-stricken 18-year-olds. Three asked for an interpreter. Their parents sent them to Israel from the United States and Australia, in order to study at the best yeshivas before returning home and marrying the best girls. For several years, the "hutznikim" (foreign students) who come to Israel after a careful selection process by yeshivas, including the extremist Mir Yeshiva, have stood out as particularly daring fighters at ultra-Orthodox demonstrations. All six denied the suspicions against them.

Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, the leading rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox sect Eda Haredit, is already more than 80 years old. He has followed in the footsteps of generations of isolationist and anti-Zionist Eda leaders, declaring war on the "heretical municipality," "for the sake of the sanctity of Shabbat."

Not all the goals of this war are holy: One of the Eda's spokesmen, Shmuel Pappenheim, noted in satisfaction that his fanatic circle once again set the agenda for all the ultra-Orthodox parties in national and local politics.

"The Haredi politicians are surprised and shocked at the great power of the Eda Haredit. They thought we were a dead item, only a few 'sicarii' [fanatics], but they saw how the declaration of one rabbi, Rabbi Weiss, brings thousands into the streets," he said.

The Eda Haredit shocked the secular Jerusalem public last Shabbat, but it considers its greatest achievement the embarrassment it caused its ultra-Orthodox partners in the coalition of the secular mayor, Nir Barkat. The relatively moderate United Torah Judaism knew about the plans to open parking lots on Shabbat, and upon its request, Barkat decided to open only one parking lot, the Safra lot, to have it operated by a non-Jewish worker, and to charge no money for parking.

The demonstration caught them unprepared. At first they tried to deny they had reached preliminary understandings with Barkat in interviews with the ultra-Orthodox media; afterward they squirmed; and in the end they announced they would not agree to a desecration of Shabbat. This weekend, Barkat decided to put the matter on hold for the next two weeks.

An ultra-Orthodox MK who intervened but asked to remain anonymous said, "This is the type of thing you can't ignore. After the Eda Haredit went to demonstrate, we had to protest too; otherwise it's like we are helping to desecrate the Shabbat publicly."

Since his election Barkat has been pinning high hopes on rapprochement with the ultra-Orthodox. In recent months he extinguished several fires in the city, mainly in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, where a bitter battle is raging between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. Last week, minutes before Shabbat began, Barkat helped achieve a compromise in court over an improvised ultra-Orthodox synagogue being held in the neighborhood grocery store, and was praised for his work. He and the ultra-Orthodox members of the city council had planned to reap the fruits of the compromise over Shabbat, but Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss had other plans.

The parking lot crisis is complicated for the ultra-Orthodox, because beneath the surface there are still reverberations from the Jerusalem mayoral elections last November. The ultra-Orthodox lost control of the city and suffered an internal rift, when the Gur Hasidic sect walked out during the race and rejected ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush. Last week, the Gur Hasidim newspaper Hamodia blamed the police for giving false information that led to the parking lot crisis. It did not blame Barkat, whose election was supported directly and indirectly by the Gur Hasidim.

On the other hand, Hamevaser, the newspaper founded by Porush after his election defeat, directed its artillery at "the opening of the municipal parking lots, which encourages those who desecrate and trample the Shabbat in the king's palace." That was part of its revenge against the Gur Hasidim. But what is truly amazing is that the three ultra-Orthodox dailies (Hamodia, Hamevaser and Yated Ne'eman) and the political entities that stand behind them, rallied to the side of the extremists within the span of a week. Until the demonstration on Shabbat they had totally ignored the Eda Haredit's outcries, and since then, the tone has become more belligerent by the day.

It is doubtful whether these issues interest the three yeshiva students who spent Saturday night in jail. At the end of a long proceeding on Sunday morning last week, they were released with police consent, under conditions ensuring they wouldn't participate in any demonstrations this weekend.

Nevertheless, in the crowded courtroom, among the shackled detainees, the attorneys and the Shin Bet security services members, prominent in his absence was a representative of the Eda Haredit and Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss.