Seculars Make Gains in the Tug of War Over Jerusalem

The Israeli capital's secular community has scored some major victories on the issue of Shabbat activity in the city.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Jerusalem's secular community suffered a blow last month when the Restobar restaurant announced its closure. The restaurant, located opposite the Prime Minister's Residence, had become an important secular institution in the capital in recent years: Its menu was blatantly nonkosher, it was open on Shabbat, it even sold chametz (leavened bread) on Passover. But it was forced to close when the premises were sold to a French-Jewish businessman who demanded in the rental contract that it close on Shabbat.

Many secular Jerusalemites viewed the Restobar's closure as another step on an irreversible road toward a more religious city with fewer options for secular residents.

Yet it seems as if secular residents are actually poised to win some major victories on the issue of Shabbat activity in the capital. The most important of these is the planned opening in another few weeks of the old train station in the southern part of the city. The old Ottoman station is being converted into a mall and entertainment complex, parts of which including a cafe, restaurant, bike rental store, ice cream parlor and art gallery will be open on Shabbat. This will turn an area stretching from the Germany Colony to Abu Tor into a center of secular activity on Shabbat. And it will adjoin the new Railway Park, which has already become a venue for sports and other recreational activities.

Moreover, in another 18 months or so, the new Sherover Center is supposed to open not far away. It will contain movie theaters, stores and other places of entertainment, and these, too, are expected to be open on Shabbat.

All this follows on the heels of the winter's big victories for secular residents of Jerusalem: The Yerushalmim movement got the city to agree that community centers in secular neighborhoods should be open on Shabbat, while a coalition of pluralistic organizations began holding various events on Shabbat in public areas around the city all with relatively muted protest from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.

As a result, there are some who think the secular public doesn't sufficiently appreciate its victories, and who warn that endless laments about the city's increasingly religious character risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Of course it's sad," said Amit Poni, a Jerusalem blogger and senior official in the Jerusalem Development Authority, of Restobar's closure. "But we have a tendency, every time we lose a battle, to eulogize the entire city. You hear phrases like 'the last nail' and 'the end of Jerusalem,' and that's not true especially when we know that things are going to change. Jerusalem is a shuttered city on Shabbat in comparison to Tel Aviv, but in comparison to any other city, it's an open city. It has movie theaters and cafes."

And now, a new battle is heating up over another movie theater complex: Cinema City, located opposite the Supreme Court, which is expected to open in another two months. This complex, containing 15 movie theaters and a large mall, is currently not slated to open on Shabbat: The land on which it is built is owned by the government and the Jerusalem municipality, and they inserted a clause in the rental contract requiring it to be closed on Shabbat. But with the Finance Ministry, which negotiated the contract on the government's behalf, having recently changed hands, secular activists are hoping this decision can be changed.

The capital's Wake Up Jerusalem party has already gotten 8,800 signatures on a petition to new Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), and Lapid has promised to look into the matter. A source in the Jerusalem municipality predicted that if Lapid rescinds the treasury's objection, the Haredi city councilmen won't be able to keep the complex from opening on Shabbat.

"There's an opportunity here for the public authorities to ensure Jerusalem's future," said Ofer Berkovitch, chairman of Wake Up Jerusalem. "There's a large secular population here, there's a non-Jewish population, and there are tourists; and all of them are looking for a place to go on Shabbat."

The site isn't located near a Haredi neighborhood, he added, so there is no problem of offending Haredi sensibilities.

Though both sides of this battle ground their arguments in the "status quo," this is a fluid term whose meaning changes according to who is using it. To secular activists, the status quo is that it has been permissible to open movie theaters on Shabbat in Jerusalem since the 1980s. To the Haredim, however, every new business opening on Shabbat violates the status quo.

As a result, Haredi Deputy Mayor Yosef Doytsch (United Torah Judaism) vows to fight every such attempt. "What Jerusalem residents really want is quiet," he declared. "Jerusalem isn't Tel Aviv or Hadera; there's a special sanctity here. ... Jerusalem's residents don't want battles; they want a Shabbat atmosphere.

Protesters outside Restobar, Jerusalem. March 18th, 2013.Credit: Michal Fattal

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