Jerusalem Plans Shabbat Closure for Road That Only Skirts a Haredi Neighborhood

Secular councilman blames ex-mayor Barkat's capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox and vows to block scheme

Construction work on a road linking the southwestern neighborhood of Ramat Sharett to the Boyer high school near Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

For the first time in years, the Jerusalem municipality plans to close a road on Shabbat even though it doesn’t run through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

In the next few weeks, work will be completed on a short road linking the southwestern neighborhood of Ramat Sharett to the Boyer high school near Mount Herzl. The road passes by the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bayit Vegan but doesn’t actually enter the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, when the road was being planned during the tenure of former Mayor Nir Barkat, the city’s road sign committee decided it should have a sign saying travel is forbidden on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The committee’s decision is final, and no other body needs to approve it.

But residents of Ramat Sharett, a secular neighborhood, plan to fight the ban.

“This is primarily a matter of personal concern, as a neighborhood resident who won’t be able to use this road on Shabbat,” said Mariana Kornfeld. “But I also see an issue of principle in how they’re eating into the public space and adapting a section of it to an ultra-Orthodox population to change the character of the neighborhood. Secular people drive on Shabbat, period, and this neighborhood has a secular character. So they should be careful to preserve a public space suited to the residents’ lifestyle.”

City councilman Yossi Havilio, one of the secular community’s two representatives in Mayor Moshe Leon’s coalition, said he views the road’s closure as a red line, but blamed it on Barkat.

“This is more of Barkat’s legacy of continual capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “The road doesn’t run through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and there’s no reason to close it on Shabbat. This is a serious blow to Jerusalem’s status quo and its secular community, and therefore, I won’t let it happen.”

The municipality said the issue isn’t currently on its agenda.

Jerusalem’s longtime ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are almost completely closed to traffic on Shabbat. But in neighborhoods where an ultra-Orthodox population has begun moving in more recently – even those that are almost completely ultra-Orthodox by now – the roads have remained open, for fear of upsetting the delicate status quo between religious and secular residents. In the Ramot neighborhood, for instance, some streets have no secular residents, but nevertheless remain open on Shabbat.

In the 1990s, when Ehud Olmert was mayor, a major battle raged in the city over whether to close Bar-Ilan Street on Shabbat. That road passes right through longtime ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem, but it’s also a major artery. For years, there were stormy demonstrations for and against the closure, and cars that drove on Bar-Ilan Street on Shabbat were sometimes stoned. The issue ultimately reached the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the road should be closed only during the hours when prayer services are held.

Today, Bar-Ilan Street is much less important, since the opening of the Begin Highway created a better and faster route. But ever since, the city has avoided closing major roads on Shabbat.