Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jerusalem car park riots

Shabbat shalom


Perhaps because Zion has been so central to Jewish civilization for thousands of years, Shabbat in Jerusalem is like Shabbat nowhere else.

From dusk on Friday until sunset Saturday, life's pace slows. Shops are mostly closed. Traffic lessens. Public transportation shuts down. The air begins to feel fresher.

Strangers greet each other with "Shabbat shalom" - a peaceful Sabbath. Songs welcoming the Sabbath bride echo from hassidic steibels to egalitarian havurot. Sounds of camaraderie around the Sabbath table, accompanied by Zemirot melodies, waft through open windows.

Imagine, then, Jerusalemites' revulsion two weeks ago, when their Sabbath tranquility was pierced by ultra-Orthodox rioting.

Why the cursing, the throwing of rocks, bottles and filthy diapers at police? Why, later, the torching of plastic garbage dumpsters? Because the rioters' "sensibilities" had been offended by the opening on Shabbat of the car park beneath Kikar Safra at City Hall.

In other words, these sanctimonious hypocrites - who won't so much as tear toilet tissue on Shabbat because it violates the sanctity of the day - felt no compunction about tearing the soul out of the Sabbath.

Jews of all persuasions, including a majority of the Orthodox, would agree that this Shabbat violence by those who profess to be "trembling before God" (haredim) brought Judaism into disrepute. It was a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name.

SEVEN MONTHS ago, police recommended that City Hall provide parking to accommodate visitors who want to spend the day enjoying Jerusalem's Old City. With municipal and commercial garages closed on the Sabbath and nearby streets inaccessible due to construction of the light rail, scores of cars are being parked helter-skelter in the street and on sidewalks. Ambulances find it difficult to navigate the area and police fear lives could be jeopardized.

The municipality had wanted to open a car park, free of charge and supervised by a non-Jew, below the Mamilla mall, close to the Jaffa Gate. (Halacha forbids Jews to engage in work on the Sabbath.) But ultra-Orthodox politicians on the municipal council said no, fearing that could somehow lead to the opening of the shopping mall above, upsetting the religious status quo.

That apprehension is completely unfounded as the primary owner of the mall is strenuously opposed to opening his property on Shabbat.

At any rate, Mayor Nir Barkat proposed using the garage below the nearby City Hall as an alternative.

The garage is located blocks from the nearest haredi neighborhood, and the number of cars to be accommodated is relatively modest. So those ultra-Orthodox politicians gave their tacit consent, and the municipality announced that Shabbat parking would now be available.

The mayor did not factor in the possibility that Shabbat parking would be seized upon by a group of virulently anti-Zionist haredim, the Eda Haredit, to settle scores with the more mainstream ultra-Orthodox, and as a way of telling Barkat that the City Hall vicinity was their turf and that he had cut a deal with the wrong haredim. Eda bosses mobilized their "street," meanwhile co-opting other haredim to march in their thousands on the garage to "protect the Sabbath."

In the wake of the ensuing violence, police recommended that the car park scheme be put off while Barkat tries to negotiate a resolution of the controversy.

The mayor needs to assure the haredi community that he is sensitive to their legitimate concerns. But he has, rightly, vowed that when all is said and done, the streets near the Old City will be unclogged on Saturday, and free parking for visitors will be available.

The original plan to provide free parking at Mamilla strikes us as the way to go.

If, however, extremists persist in their efforts to intimidate, a variety of steps are called for:

• challenging the not-for-profit status of the institutions behind the rioting (in coordination with foreign tax authorities);

• prosecuting rioters to the full extent of the law;

• deporting indicted foreigners;

• instructing police to treat further outbreaks of haredi lawlessness as if they came from any other sector.

Violent extremists must not be allowed to rob Jerusalem's majority, and those who come to visit, of the peace, tolerance and tranquility that epitomizes Shabbat.

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