Bar Fight in Jerusalem Neighborhood at Heart of Israel’s Religious-secular War

Kiryat Hayovel has come to symbolize the clash between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities, but the closure of its community pub has angered even local Haredim.

Members of the cooperative community who set up the Mifletzet Bar & Café in Kiryat Hayovel, Jerusalem, March 16, 2017.
Emil Salman

The Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel may be the hardest place in Israel to try to avoid a secular-religious war. Over the past 15 years, ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) families have begun moving into the largely secular neighborhood, which has sparked fierce protests by long-term residents.

Secular moves to fight the ultra-Orthodox influx included cutting the wires of the eruv (an enclosure that allows religious Jews to carry on outside their home on Shabbat) and battling to prevent ultra-Orthodox schools from opening in the neighborhood.

Three years ago, a few of Kiryat Hayovel’s secular residents decided to set up a local venue for meetings and activities. They weren’t initially sure what form it should take, but ultimately settled on a cooperative community pub called the Mifletzet Bar & Café.

Named after the monster-shaped children’s play sculpture that has become an unofficial symbol for the neighborhood, the pub finally opened last summer. It drew hundreds of people every weekend, but also attracted the attention of ultra-Orthodox media outlets and city councilmen.

Thus, even though the cooperative never intended to become the secular community’s standard-bearer in Israel’s culture war, it found itself on the front lines.

Two weeks ago, despite promises of help by municipal officials, it was served with a closure order – forcing the pub to shut down.

The not-for-profit pub was housed in two tents in the courtyard of Kiryat Hayovel’s neighborhood association, far from any ultra-Orthodox residents’ homes. It was run by some 70 co-op members, aged 18 to 71, together with volunteers and opened on Friday and Saturday nights.

During the week it sponsored cultural events – including lectures, films and concerts, with an emphasis on pluralism and Judaism. A few weeks ago, for instance, it held a board games night. And last week there was supposed to be an evening of piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems), which had to be canceled due to the closure order.

Some of the events were run in cooperation with religious organizations. The pub also sparked the opening of dialogue groups in the neighborhood, which ultra-Orthodox residents sometimes attended.

“We wanted to produce culture and create a community via a shared space,” said Ma’ayan Mor, a 29-year-old teacher and leading activist in the co-op. “We didn’t want to carry any standard,” she added, explaining that the co-op sees the Haredim “as neighbors. In my view, that’s what a neighborhood is.”

The co-op had recently been trying to obtain a business license. Municipal officials had led the members to believe this wouldn’t be a problem, since most businesses in Israel open without a license and then complete the licensing process once they’re up and running.

By January, it had met all the requirements except for making the bathroom sink handicapped-accessible. But by then the ultra-Orthodox press was running stories against the “public house” that was desecrating Shabbat.

To the co-op’s astonishment, the city refused to grant it a license once the sink was finished, and instead began issuing new demands.

The most difficult was that the pub obtain a permit to operate on Shabbat. Only after numerous days spent at city hall did co-op members realize that no such permit existed.

The municipality’s next step was an indictment for operating a business without a license. Nobody in Jerusalem can remember the municipality previously displaying such efficiency and determination in shutting down a small business by filing an indictment. And on March 10, while the pub was preparing to open for the weekend, a city official arrived to hand it the closure order.

Both the order and indictment were reported on the Haredi website Behadrey Haredim a few days before they reached co-op members.

The members insist their pub wasn’t intended to provoke anyone. “We tried to create a new trend whose goal wasn’t to clash but to recognize each other’s rights, without turning it into a battle,” said Matan Kolerman, the cooperative’s CEO and only salaried employee. “But the politicians managed to drag us into this, and because of the neighborhood’s history it flared up very quickly.”

In the eyes of Haredi councilmen, the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood association was spearheading an anti-religious battle that threatened the religious status quo throughout Jerusalem.

The city’s secular residents have recently demanded that neighborhood association buildings be allowed to host activities on Shabbat. But this is a red line for the ultra-Orthodox, since the buildings are owned by the municipality.

“It’s not even ultra-Orthodox people from the neighborhood,” complained Kolerman. “It’s clear to everyone that we aren’t bothering anyone. It’s the politicians who are trying to reap political capital. ... Perhaps we were naive, but we tried to be innocent.”

Y., an ultra-Orthodox resident from the neighborhood, agreed that the battle had nothing to do with Kiryat Hayovel’s Haredi community.

“The worst part of what’s happening to us is the harm we suffer from the fact that every ultra-Orthodox person who listens to the media is certain we’re ‘the most wretched people’ in Jerusalem,” he wrote on Behadrey Haredim. “This is doing much greater damage than everything the [neighborhood] association has done to us in all its years of war. I can only beg the ‘sympathetic’ media – leave us alone! Stop creating imaginary monsters!”

Since the pub’s closure, co-op members have organized protests but have been careful not to violate the closure order. Now, they must decide whether to wage a legal battle or a public one.

The Jerusalem municipality noted that a court issued the closure order because the pub was operating without a license, which is a criminal offense. It denied ever promising to grant the pub a license, and also denied making any unusual demands of it.

“It’s important to note that there would be no problem opening the pub in a commercial center, and Jerusalem has many pubs that are open on Shabbat,” the city’s statement said. “But the municipality knows of no precedent anywhere in the country for opening a private pub in a municipal space – a neighborhood association or community center – and even the Mifletzet Bar’s personnel agreed that it doesn’t belong in a neighborhood association.”