In Jerusalem’s culture war, secular residents make gains

By Miriam Berger, AP

JERUSALEM, Israel–Crowds of angry ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, wearing long beards, black and white garb and large black hats, protested in the streets of Jerusalem earlier this month against a new cinema opening its doors on the Sabbath.

The demonstration was meant to be a show of strength in a long-running dispute over the role of strict Jewish law in the cultural life of Jerusalem. But in many ways, it was also a sign of desperation after a series of gains by the city’s secular community in recent years.

“No one’s saying we’re giving up,” said Shmuel Poppenheim, an unofficial spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community. But, he conceded, “We know it’s a lost cause. … We know that we can’t stage a war” over every new establishment open on the Sabbath.

Despite Jerusalem’s image as a city that grinds to a halt on the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, more than 200 cafes, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums, cultural institutions and other entertainment centers now stay open in non-religious Jewish areas of the city.

That is a major shift over the last 30 years from a time when only a handful of establishments stayed open and a law forbade cinemas from operating on the Sabbath. The “Yes Planet” cinema that drew the recent protests was the second major destination to open with Sabbath hours in the past two years, after a former train station reopened as a commercial center in 2013.

These initiatives have contributed to the most notable shift in secular-religious relations since the early 1990s, said Shahar Ilan of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious equality.

For decades ultra-Orthodox communities have flexed their political muscle, sometimes violently, to keep workplaces, businesses and government institutions in Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods shut down for the Sabbath.

While most Jewish Israelis are secular, Israel’s founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the country’s affairs, and Orthodox rabbis strictly govern religious events such as weddings, divorces and burials for the Jewish population. The ultra-Orthodox also are perennial kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics, though they make up only about 10 percent of the country’s population.

Their influence is especially pronounced in Jerusalem, where their numbers are proportionally much larger than the national average. Jerusalem is split almost evenly into thirds between secular and modern Orthodox residents, Muslim Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in insular enclaves.

Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox communities also traditionally have held significant power in the municipal government. They are bolstered by laws and unwritten agreements that grant them certain protections, such as barriers to prevent cars from driving through religious areas on the Sabbath, said Menachem Friedman, a professor of Judaism at Bar Ilan University.

Attempts to change Jerusalem’s delicate balance have prompted violent backlashes from the ultra-Orthodox, who have blocked roads, clashed with police and sent tens of thousands of activists into the streets on their rabbis’ orders.