When Haredi and Secular Jerusalem Went to War Every Friday Night

How a movie theater opening on the Sabbath triggered a turf battle in the mid-1980s.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
The new Yes Planet cinema complex in Jerusalem, August 2015.
The new Yes Planet cinema complex in Jerusalem, August 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The battle for Jerusalem reached its apex in the late summer of 1987, when hundreds of nonreligious demonstrators gathered every Friday to defend the first downtown movie theater that opened on Friday nights and Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath). The ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods nearby were surrounded by barricades and hundreds of police officers, in order to prevent Haredi protesters from arriving and trying to disrupt the screenings.

The police frequently used tear gas and billy clubs to disperse the protesters. But despite their best efforts, there were still many Haredim who managed to sneak through and reach the secular demonstration – which was outside the Beit Agron Theater in the city center.

One of the ultra-Orthodox protesters, Aharon Gartner – a senior activist in Eda Haredit at the time – stood at the entrance and told everyone entering the auditorium: “Shabbes, everyone who desecrates the Sabbath will be surely put to death!”

Sa’ar Netanel, then a member of the left-wing Ratz youth movement and a regular demonstrator – and later a member of the Jerusalem municipality for the Meretz party – remembers that “seeing a movie on Friday night in Jerusalem during that period was truly a subversive act. I felt it was a youthful rebellion, something pioneering.”

On Tuesday, 28 years after those battles, the Yes Planet cinema complex will open in the city’s southern Abu Tor neighborhood. The multiplex’s 16 screens will join dozens more – plus more than 200 other businesses, restaurants, coffeehouses, clubs and pubs – that open in the capital on the Sabbath.

Ultra-Orthodox men protesting against the opening on the Sabbath of the Karta parking lot.Credit: Emil Salman

So, can we finally declare a secular victory in the battle for Shabbat in Jerusalem? The optimists will say yes, pointing out there is no other city in Israel, except Tel Aviv, with so many businesses open on a Saturday.

In response, though, the pessimists among the nonreligious will mention the ultra-Orthodox takeover of neighborhood after neighborhood in Jerusalem. And then there’s the changing demographic balance, to the detriment of the secular population, and the uncomfortable feeling the nonreligious endure in some of the city’s public spaces.

Breaking the religious status quo

The battle over the Sabbath in Jerusalem is woven into the city’s history in the modern era. Back in the 1930s, there were demonstrations by the Haredim against the desecration of the Sabbath in Jerusalem, and they continued following the formation of the state. But the religious status quo – official observance of Jewish law regarding the Sabbath and Jewish holidays – had been strict in Jerusalem until the mid-1980s. As far as is known, there were only two restaurants open on a Saturday in west Jerusalem before the mid-’80s – and they served food that was prepared in advance and which was paid for with coupons bought in advance, before the Sabbath.

In the mid-’80s, though, there were a number of attempts to open restaurants on the Sabbath. Sometimes these attempts led to demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox and counterdemonstrations by the nonreligious. Under Mayor Teddy Kollek, city hall mostly ignored these attempts as long as the restaurants operated far from the Haredi neighborhoods.

The new Yes Planet cinema complex in Jerusalem, under constructions.Credit: Emil Salman

But things changed in 1986 when a private entrepreneur, Amatzia Kaplan, tried to open a movie theater on Friday nights – in violation of a 30-year-old law. This brought the ultra-Orthodox out for an uncompromising struggle. The huge amounts of ink spilled in this battle can be witnessed from the huge collection of posters printed by the Haredi community. These are now stored in the National Library in Jerusalem, donated by Yoel Kreus – the so-called “operations officer” of the Eda Haredit organization. “Hear O Israel (Shema Yisrael),” one proclaims, “the enemies of God and his Torah have declared war on the Sabbath in order to destroy the holy Jerusalem ... Do not stand aside.”

At their height, ultra-Orthodox groups gathered to demonstrate in no fewer than 26 of Jerusalem’s squares and intersections, conducting mass prayer services. Kollek was accused of encouraging the movie theaters to open in some of the posters, which earned him comparisons to “the Hitlerite snake.” Despite that, he actually tried to prevent the screenings and even passed a municipal by-law against them. In order to evade the new law, the movies were defined as a “cultural evening.” Consequently, viewers were forced to listen to a short lecture before the movie began.

The battle by the nonreligious community on behalf of Beit Agron Theater was one of the highlights of secular protests within the city, and for years afterward it continued to reverberate on the local political scene. Every Friday night, hundreds of nonreligious protesters would gather to demonstrate in the square in front of the theater, known colloquially as “Cats Square”: This turned into a major entertainment event in its own right. Two groups led the protest: the Ratz Movement (one of the predecessors of Meretz); and Kol Ha’ir, a local newspaper.

The turning point in the nonreligious protests came in late 1987, when Judge Ayala Procaccia, who at the time served on the local administrative court in Jerusalem, ruled in the lawsuit filed by the municipality against the cinema owner, Kaplan.

Procaccia overturned the local by-law banning the showing of movies on the Sabbath, and in doing so created a new religious status quo in the capital. This allowed for the opening of restaurants, coffeehouses and other entertainment spots on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters gather to protest the opening of the Beit Agron Theater in Jerusalem, 1987.Credit: Rahamim Israeli

Since then, many reels of film have unspooled on Jerusalem’s projectors (well, before the cinemas went digital) on the Sabbath – and restaurants, pubs, clubs and cafes have started opening at a terrific rate. This victory for the nonreligious community has also found expression in the unprecedented success of left-wing parties in local city politics: Ratz, Free Jerusalem and, later, Meretz.

The car park war

The last major battle in this city war came six years ago, over the opening on the Sabbath of the Karta parking lot, near the Old City. The battle was long and hard – but it too ended in defeat for the Haredim.

In the meantime, the ultra-Orthodox community has had to suffice with the fact that Cinema City – the first major multiplex to open in Jerusalem, in February 2014 – is still closed on the Sabbath. Mayor Nir Barkat objects to it opening on Saturdays, despite the protests of his municipal coalition partners on the city council, a petition on the matter in the High Court of Justice, and even calls by the secular community for a boycott of the cinema complex.

Now, the ultra-Orthodox are once more being enlisted to fight for the honor and holiness of the Sabbath. But it seems the probability that it will become a broad protest movement and threaten the opening of the new Yes Planet on Friday nights and Saturdays is minimal. The main reason is that the movie theater complex is privately owned, and city hall has absolutely no room to influence the decision on its opening or closing – as opposed to Cinema City, which is located on land owned by the city and state.

Bigger battles to fight

Another reason is the distance between the new cinema complex and the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. In addition, it seems the energy and motivation that drove the battles of 30 years ago no longer exists.

This may be because the time of the great rabbis involved in those fights – men such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach – has passed. Or it could be because the present leadership of the Haredi communities are investing their efforts in battles that are seen as more important to them, such as government budgets or the fight against induction into the Israel Defense Forces.

“The demographic threat is something that’s difficult to talk about today,” says Uri Ayalon, a Conservative rabbi and advocate for pluralism. “The Haredim of today are not the Haredim of the 1980s, and they are not the Haredim of 20 years [from now]. They no longer see Jerusalem as the holy city they must die for. Haredi society is in a major crisis today, and it is not dealing with these issues of the Sabbath. The opposite, in fact: the average ultra-Orthodox family, one where the children work, is happy the city remains pluralistic. It is an open city that can open even more. The only problem is we are captive to this narrative of ‘Closed Jerusalem’ and ‘Open Tel Aviv.’ All we need is to be freed from this,” added Ayalon.

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