Unholy Strife in the Holy City

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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A reasonable person might suppose that a place revered worldwide as the Holy City would manage, if nothing else, to bring out some of the better angels from its denizens’ souls. One might even be forgiven for thinking that the people of the City of Peace could learn to get along. But, of course, we all know that’s not how things work. Not when we’re talking about Jerusalem.

A city of many grudges, Jerusalem saw its oldest ongoing feud erupt this summer into a series of unusually violent street battles between riot police and members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. The heart of the dispute was a decision by newly elected Mayor Nir Barkat, an outspoken secularist, to open a municipal parking garage on Saturdays in order to ease congestion from Old City tourism. Since the garage was first opened in early June, however, the dispute has escalated into new emotional territory.

The change is reflected in various ways. Haredi rioters are said to be wilder and more destructive than in past outbursts. Secular responses are more vitriolic. Politicians’ speeches, news coverage and talk-back on Web sites speak in dark terms. Police are accused of treating the rioters with kid gloves. Some complain that the police should have opened fire with live ammunition. A common refrain from liberal commentators is that if the rioters had been Arabs, some would have been shot dead already — as 13 Israeli Arabs were shot during stone-throwing riots in Israel’s north in October 2000, still a live wound.

Haredi bloggers are noting the comparison, too. If we were Arabs, they reply to the liberals, you would be listening to our complaints, urging dialogue and telling the cops to put their nightsticks away.

The violence began June 6, the first day the parking lot was opened. Rabbis called a massive prayer rally to protest, with thousands in attendance. It deteriorated into crowds of youths, mainly yeshiva students according to blog accounts, throwing rocks and soiled diapers at police, injuring six. The rallies and street battles became weekly events after various city compromise plans failed to quell the parking-garage protests. By early July the riots were becoming two-day affairs and injuries were piling up.

On Tuesday, July 14, the month-long Sabbath rioting took a new, dangerous direction. Police disclosed that day that they had arrested a Haredi woman on charges of child abuse. Her 3-year-old child had been brought to Hadassah Hospital in February in a state of near-starvation, weighing only 15 pounds, and she had been videotaped removing his feeding tube.

The arrest sparked a new wave of violence. Rioters began setting fire to dumpsters throughout Haredi sections of the city, smashing traffic lights, attacking city garbage collectors and vandalizing two city welfare offices. Gangs began stoning cars at intersections throughout the city. On July 15, Barkat ordered municipal services cut off in Haredi neighborhoods where the riots were going on.

Violent protests over Sabbath observance are nothing new in Jerusalem. Since the last major clashes in 1996, however, the atmosphere has changed. Relations between Haredi and secular Jews in Jerusalem have soured badly. Non-Orthodox Jerusalemites complain loudly and frequently that the city is being “taken over” by extremists bent on imposing their lifestyle on others. And indeed, with an average birthrate of eight children per family according to government statistics, Haredim are on their way to becoming a majority of the Jerusalem’s Jewish population.

The election in 2003 of the city’s first Haredi mayor, Uri Lupolianski, set off alarm bells. He proved to be a conciliatory figure, but there were fears that the door had been opened to more extremist rule. Barkat’s election campaign last fall took on the air of a secularist — some said anti-religious — campaign.

When Barkat won, Haredi Jerusalemites reacted much the same as the secularists had in 2003 — claiming that the city had been taken from them.

Behind the complaints, there are other, more complex forces coming to the fore, and secular Jerusalemites are paying too little attention. Haredi bitterness over the election was intensified by an internal feud that arguably cost them the vote. The largest Hasidic sect in Israel, Ger, has been locked in a power struggle with a coalition of smaller sects and most of the leading non-Hasidic Haredi rabbis — the so-called Litvak or yeshivish leadership — over control of the multimillion-dollar Haredi school system. Ger lost several rounds last year and retaliated by abandoning the Haredi candidate for mayor, handing the election to Barkat. Since June the Haredi press has been heaping abuse on the Ger leadership, claiming — correctly — that there would be no parking issue if Ger hadn’t jumped ship. Ger rubbed salt in the wound when it leaped to endorse the mass parking-garage protests early on, when some of the leading Haredi sages were hesitating — fearing violence.

The Haredi world is divided in another, more substantive way that non-Orthodox Jews are ignoring, at their peril. Events are being driven more and more by a small sub-community that other Haredim consider dangerously extremist. At the heart of it is the Edah Haredit, a coalition of tiny Hasidic groups, most of them militant breakaways from the anti-Zionist Satmar sect, along with a few minor yeshivish rabbis. The accused mother is from one of those Satmar breakaways, by the way.

The Edah is an independent world within the Haredi world with its own chief rabbi, rabbinical courts, schools and kosher inspectors. It was established in 1919 — before the first Arab anti-Zionist violence — to represent the pre-Zionist Jews of Jerusalem who didn’t want the Zionists representing them to the British. Over the years it has become smaller and more hard-core, as the Haredi majority has settled into a workable — treasonous, according to the Edah — relationship with Israeli society at large. Until recently it was known mainly for its highly rigorous kosher standards, which make its kosher stamp a favorite in many Israeli religious circles. Lately it’s become known for threatening the Haredi future.

Since the rioting began, the Orthodox press and blogosphere have been filled with furious denunciations of the Edah and its hangers-on. They accuse it of inciting a confrontation that hurts everyone, damaging property and turning gullible yeshiva students into hoodlums — not to mention souring Haredi-secular relations. Blog posts are filled with words like “meshumads” (apostates) and “hoodlums.” One leading American Haredi rabbi, Yakov Horowitz, who heads a youth-at-risk program for the Haredi advocacy group Agudath Israel, has a Web site that has become a magnet for Haredim desperate to regain control of their community from the hotheads.

Here’s what Horowitz has to say about the current crisis: “We have no right preaching to others until we have removed this horrible stain from our own communities. And it will remain that way until we change things.”

Some liberals might be tempted to wish a plague on both Haredi houses. That’s a mistake. Haredi Jews aren’t going away — quite the opposite. It’s important to know who your friends are going to be.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@
forward.com


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