The Battle for Jerusalem

More than 10 movie theaters operate in Jerusalem every weekend, and more than 100 restaurants and kiosks are open to the public on Friday nights, but the number of potential clients is steadily diminishing.

On August 21, 1987, the leisure and arts section of the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir appeared on the paper's front page. This was no accident. At the time, the most important events in the city were the pioneering movie screenings on Friday nights and the demonstrations supporting or opposing them.

The Beit Agron theater was showing "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Body Heat," visitors to the Mapam Party's Tzavta theater could catch a show of "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," and Beit Yitzhaki (also a Mapam facility) was screening "Irma la Douce." And what about the demonstrations? Activists from the city's poorer neighborhoods were planning a protest across from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood of Mea She'arim. A Haredi group, meanwhile, intended to hold a demonstration in front of Beit Agron, while members of the city's youth movements were going to stand on the highway leading out of Jerusalem and persuade young people heading out for a night in Tel Aviv to remain in the city.

The most important event, however, was taking place at Kikar Hachatulot [Cats' Square], the paved plaza in front of Beit Agron. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of secular Israelis met there every Friday night for what was part demonstration, part social gathering. Every meeting drew more support for the local branch of the liberal party Ratz and for its leader, Ornan Yekutieli; that support went far beyond the boundaries of the left.

Without a doubt, those were the finest moments of the secular public in Jerusalem, but also its swan song. Twenty years after the secular faction won that battle, it is clear that it lost the war. More than 10 movie theaters operate in Jerusalem every weekend, and more than 100 restaurants and kiosks are open to the public on Friday nights, but the number of potential clients is steadily diminishing.

Here comes one

An important part of the atmosphere at the Friday night demonstrations outside Beit Agron was waiting for the Haredi protesters. Once, early in August, young activists of Ratz and Mapam, wielding sticks, drove off several dozen Haredi demonstrators. That Shabbat the Haredim scored a no less important victory: thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters emerged from Me'a She'arim and took over the center of town. On another day, in late August, a single Haredi man crossed the Beit Agron square, and the rumor spread like wildfire: "Here comes a dos!" [That's Hebrew slang term for a religious Jew.] Escorted by policemen and Ratz activists, the Haredi man walked through the crowd; to his credit, his head was held high. One can only hope that he was not too deeply traumatized by the event.

In the lion's den

But the Haredi protester who showed true courage was Aharon Gertner, an activist in the fight against the desecration of Jewish graves, and the self-styled deputy of Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. The latter was known as "the Haredi community's operations officer"; little did he dream in those days that someday, as the founder of the rescue organization ZAKA, he would be collecting secular human remains for burial. One Friday Gertner managed to make his way across police lines, stood at the entrance to Beit Agron and yelled at those who arrived, "Shabbes [Shabbat in Yiddish], the desecraters of the Sabbath will be put to death." As he explained to the author of these lines, "It hurts me when Shabbat is violated, so I have to cry out."

A movie and a lecture

The struggle for Friday night movies in Jerusalem was launched by a private entrepreneur, Amatzia Kaplan, who operated the Beit Agron theater. This was also why the square outside Beit Agron became the foremost gathering place. But after a small fire was set at the entrance to the building and someone placed ads in the paper announcing that Kaplan's car and apartment were for sale, he decided to suspend the screenings for a week. That was when the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Mapam clubs decided to show movies on Friday night. Municipal law permitted cultural activities on the Sabbath, but prohibited the operation of recreational venues. Therefore, the Cinematheque and Beit Agron prefaced each movie with an enriching and civilized 15-minute lecture.

In the battle for the movie theaters, the Haredi protesters developed a method for wearing the police down: They held dozens of small demonstrations across the city. One of the great advantages of this method was that there was no need to protest far from home. The police fired canister after canister of tear gas at the Haredim. The gas gave rise to stories of miraculous intervention, of how the wind changed direction at the right moment, wafting the gas toward the police and press.

Thanks to the city

The legal sanction for the screenings on Shabbat was given by then District Court Judge Ayala Procaccia (today a Supreme Court justice). The city filed charges against the theater owners, claiming they had violated municipal law. In a ruling that changed the face of the Sabbath across the country, Procaccia decreed in November 1987 that the municipality did not have the authority to pass laws on religious grounds and to impose such severe limitations on individual liberty. Thus, thanks to the legal action taken by the city, multiplexes also started showing movies on the weekends.