Ultra-Orthodox City Council Members Cancel Meeting for 'Shabbat Desecration'

When pluralistic city council members sponsored a hike to pick mushrooms on Shabbat, ultra-Orthodox members canceled a meeting, citing 'no respect for us'

Families from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem picking mushrooms in the Jerusalem Forest on Saturday.
Pnina Shalvi

Ultra-Orthodox members of the Jerusalem City Council canceled a planning meeting Sunday with residents of the Beit Hakerem neighborhood because the local community council had sponsored a Shabbat hike to pick mushrooms in the Jerusalem Forest.

Residents of the neighborhood had been scheduled to meet Sunday with members of the city’s planning and building committee to discuss their objections to the building of a roof over the section of the Begin Highway that runs between their neighborhood and Givat Ram. The roofing project is part of a larger plan the city is advancing that will include the construction of 1,800 apartments, public buildings and commercial facilities.

Before the plan was to be debated by the panel, members agreed to come to the neighborhood to hear the position of the residents and the community council, an elected body. But upon learning that the community council had conducted the hike on Shabbat, City Councilman Yohanan Weitzman (United Torah Judaism) sent an email to neighborhood residents asking to cancel the meeting.

“We cannot come to a place where they treat what’s holy and precious to us with contempt, without any consideration for the feelings of most of the city’s residents,” said Weitzman’s message, which was posted on the Haredi website Hadrei Haredim.

In recent months Haredi representatives in the municipality have been battling against Shabbat-violating activities sponsored by the community councils, which receive municipal funding. For example, these representatives worked to suspend funding to the community council in Kiryat Hayovel after it organized activities on Shabbat. The Haredim recently blocked the entrance of the pluralistic “Jerusalemites” faction into the municipal coalition because its coalition agreement with Mayor Nir Barkat called for allowing activities in community centers on Shabbat.

“We view the Haredi representatives as our representatives and it isn’t logical that they shouldn’t deal with our problems,” said Noga Lev Zion, chairwoman of the Beit Hakerem Community Council. “Beit Hakerem conducts activities seven days a week. Beit Hakerem is a pluralistic neighborhood and part of the pluralistic culture is to do things on Shabbat. We don’t see this as violating Shabbat; we are celebrating Shabbat in our own way. We have no interest in a culture war; live and let live.”

Laura Wharton, an opposition city councilor from Meretz, said, “Behind what seems like the innocent cancellation of a meeting hides the declaration of a culture war.” She said a Haredi colleague on the planning committee had admitted to her that the Haredi committee members decided to boycott the Beit Hakerem Community Council because of Sabbath violations.

“Members of the Haredi minority in the city have decided what is permitted and forbidden for all of us. Law-abiding residents of Beit Hakerem are now subject to stringent Torah law decided upon by a few council members. We can’t accept such insane coercion in a free country,” Wharton said.

A Haredi city councilman confirmed the details and added, “We agreed with Barkat that the community councils cannot conduct any activities on Shabbat. The moment a community council disregards the rules and publicizes an event with the council logo we cannot accept this. Apparently there are entities that have an interest in heating things up.”

He added, however, that he believed the discussion about the road would take place at a later date.