by Ilan Shahar
Last winter, every weekend saw Bar-Ilan Street in northern Jerusalem converted into a battlefield. On one side were the ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as the Haredim, or God-fearing, who demand the closure of the street on the Sabbath and on Jewish festivals. They would gather to demonstrate and throw stones at passing cars and at police officers sent to keep order. Garbage bins would be overturned to block the road. On the other hand, secular members of Meretz or the Labor party would travel in convoys along the controversial street, putting themselves at considerable personal risk in order to keep the street open.
However, as everything in Jerusalem is more complex than it appears, the struggle over Bar-Ilan Street is far more than a mere controversy over opening or closing the road on the Sabbath. Three thousand years of histo¬ry, sacred principles, mystic beliefs — and yes, also political interests, can be read between the lines of every poster calling on the ultra-Orthodox public to protest against this open "desecration of the Sabbath."
In the eyes of all those involved, the struggle over Bar-Ilan Street is a test case for numerous issues affecting the future of the city: the results of the clash will symbolize the new relation of political forces in Jerusalem. First and foremost, this struggle is a test for the new municipal coalition between the ultra-Orthodox and the right (Likud) — a coalition which in the last elections enabled the Likud's Ehud Olmert to defeat Labor's Teddy Kollek who had been mayor for the last 27 years.
The ultra-Orthodox are already enjoying considerable financial alloca¬tions for their educational institutions, but they must also show achieve¬ments in larger religious (and not only educational) affairs. The bottom line is clear to all — that the road will be closed. The only question is when.
Perhaps after the Knesset elections. The Likud candidate for prime min¬ister, MK Benjamin Netanyahu, hopes to reconstruct Olmert's alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and thus to beat Yitzhak Rabin. So even if the street is not closed by then, there can be little doubt that this will happen if Netanyahu gets into power.
The Territorial Question
There is also a test case here for the question: Should the ultra-Orthodox participate in running the city, and is it worth their while? The extreme and anti-Zionist factions like the Haredi
community and the Neturei Karta
(Guardians of the City) oppose the present participation of ultra-Orthodox parties in elections to the municipality, and receiving funds from it. The extremists are out to embarrass the coalition through criticism on religious matters, especially on the subject of Bar-Ilan Street.
The battle for this street will also be a test case for an important territo¬rial question. In the last 20 years, most of the northern section of the city has become ultra-Orthodox. Most roads in that area have been closed to Sabbath traffic; closing this one will constitute official recognition that the city is no longer divided into the traditional two sections (eastern and western Jerusalem) but into three: Palestinian eastern Jerusalem, northern ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem and southern secular Jerusalem.
The Last Barrier
From the secular point of view, too, however vital the opening of the road, it is also a symbol. Bypassing Bar-Ban is very inconvenient for Saturday traffic but it is possible. However, for many years Bar-Ilan Street has been considered the last barrier, which must not be abandoned. For the secular public in Jerusalem, closing the street would be a painful manifestation of the growing strength of the ultra-Orthodox in the city.
The political strength of the Haredim
has indeed been growing for many years, and there is an (incorrect) impression that they are dominat¬ing the life of secular Jerusalemites. Actually, it is the secular who have won most of the battles over religion in the city, especially those over the Sabbath. Fifteen years ago, Jerusalem didn't have a single cinema, and only very few restaurants and bars, that were open on Saturday. Today 15 cinema halls and dozens of restaurants are open on the Sabbath (Friday evenings and Saturday).
The opening of the soccer stadium in Malha where the main matches are played on a Saturday was another secular victory. The general rule seems to be that the Haredim
win only when their struggle is connected to their own territory, while they regularly lose every battle where they try to inter¬fere with what is going on among the secular people.
The Demographic Factor
In spite of all the secular achievements, the victory of the rightist-Haredi
coalition in the last municipal elections provided hard proof of Jerusalem's demographic landscape. In demographic terms, the ultra-Orthodox are way ahead. Experts estimate that the Haredim
today constitute 27 to 30 percent of the Jewish population of Jerusalem. In the City Council, they have nine out of 31 places, or 29 percent. The secularists fear the Haredim
primarily because of their high birthrate (which is greater than that of Palestinians in East Jerusalem). Even today, Haredim
account for 41 per¬cent of Jewish-school pupils in the city (excluding those educational insti¬tutions which refuse to take money from the municipality). In kinder¬gartens they are already 60 percent of Jewish children.
On the basis of this data, the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies con¬cludes that in 2010, 40 percent of Jerusalem's residents will be Haredim.
This forecast raises important questions about the future of the city.
Not So Certain
The director of the Israel Lands Authority, Uzi Wexler, says that the demo¬graphic forecast of the Jerusalem Institute starts from the assumption that what was, will be: in other words, the Haredi
population will continue to grow at the present rate. Wexler, like Prof. Menachem Friedman who has conducted important research on the ultra-Orthodox population, foresees an upset in demographic processes to be caused by a large wave of ultra¬ Orthodox giving up religion and adopting other values.
Friedman explains that the acute economic crisis of the Haredi
population will compel many of them to go into the army and to find work, thus opening themselves up to secular influences. (The Haredim
are traditional¬ly allowed to avoid military service.)
He also points out that in Israel, it is impossible to forecast demographic developments. As he sees it, much depends on the question of whether the government will provide cheap apartments for Haredim
outside Jerusalem, thus drawing them out of the city. Friedman doesn't discount the possibil¬ity that the Haredim
will break forth from their own areas, buy up apart¬ments in secular areas and thus conquer new neighborhoods. This process will be assisted by the trend among part of the stronger elements in the sec¬ular population to move out of the city into suburban neighborhoods such as Mevasseret Zion.
Friedman warns of a situation in which Jerusalem, like Washington, will be transformed into a capital city whose residents (Haredim
and poor neighborhoods) will be economically weak, with the socioeconomic "elite" living outside the city, driven out by the Haredim.
More Religious Coercion?
Contrary to the accepted myth, the sense of strangulation felt by secularists as a result of religious coercion is a secondary motivation in their departure from the city. The main reasons are the astronomical housing prices and the lack of suitable places of employment, particularly in industry. The campaign now being conducted by the ultra-Orthodox against the extension of the important hi-tech Intel industry (which they claim pollutes a Haredi
neighborhood) might contribute to more secular Jerusalemites leaving the city.
The growing political strength of the ultra-Orthodox naturally causes the secularists increasing concern over the prospects for increased reli¬gious coercion and the erosion of the many achievements won by the sec¬ular sector in recent years, particularly as regards Sabbath opening. However, the general view of both Haredim
and secularists is that there will be no such erosion. Prof. Friedman says that "there will be a sort of status quo. The ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods will be more ultra¬ Orthodox and the secular neighborhoods will be totally secular." So, the Haredim
can be expected to concentrate on more schools and syna¬gogues, building new neighborhoods, and so on.
The municipal coalition, with an absolute religious majority, continues to allocate budgets to Conservative and Reform Jewish institutions, to sports clubs which play on Sabbath and to cultural centers like the Cinematheque and the Khan Theater which are open on Friday nights and Saturdays. So secular Jerusalem's way of life is assured for at least another decade.
A Haredi Mayor?
Of course, all this will change if and when there is an ultra-Orthodox mayor. When will this come about? Only when the Haredim
constitute an absolute majority, or something near this, in the city; this will certainly not be for the next 10 years. The alliance between the Likud and the Haredim
is built on the assumption that the Haredim
vote for the Likud candidate, and not the other way round. It is certainly possible that in the future, the Likud will run a religious or at least a traditional candidate so as to satisfy the ultra-Orthodox.
It is generally assumed that the first ultra-Orthodox mayor will be one of the outstanding younger Haredi
politicians, such as Meir Porush, who is now serving as deputy mayor. He says he doesn't think that a Haredi
municipality would close secular entertainment centers on Saturday, but he would certainly prevent the opening of new ones. One can assume, however, that under a Haredi
municipality, with an ultra-Orthodox mayor, this will be the least of the worries of the secular population. First will be the flight of masses of economically well-established secularists either to the suburbs or even further, to the coastal plain. It is hard to imagine an Israeli government permitting such an exodus from the capital city.
Beware Bnei Brak
How will Haredi
rule in Jerusalem look? The only existing example of a Haredi city in Israel is Bnei Brak, which is a bankrupt suburb of Tel Aviv. The ultra-Orthodox population there, with its many children, pays rela¬tively low rates. In a city where the main occupation is religious study, there are naturally insufficient industries and businesses to pay proper taxes. But there are many tax-exempt religious institutions.
Porush says that "here in Jerusalem everything is done legally and pro¬fessionally and in accordance with the proper regulations," and Haredi
Knesset Member Rabbi Avraham Ravitz is sure that "Jerusalem will never be like Bnei Brak. I don't know any Haredim
in Jerusalem who don't pay taxes."
Nevertheless, contrary to Porush's assurance on the immunity from cor¬ruption of the administration in Jerusalem, his colleagues in the munici¬pality and in the government have proven that orderly administration can quickly be undone. Many of the local and national ultra-Orthodox officials think that the aim of securing budgets for the institutions that they repre¬sent is far more important than norms of fair allocation of funds or the accepted rules of fair administration. If the ultra-Orthodox run the munic¬ipality with the same methods they have been using elsewhere in local government, they will have no difficulty in undermining orderly administration in the course of a few months.
The political map of Jerusalem would of course change completely were the Palestinians to participate in local elections, and run their own list. This seems to be only a theoretical possibility as things stand, since the Palestinians would see it as recognition of Israeli rule over the eastern section of the city. At first sight there seems to be a good basis for cooperation between the Haredim
and the Arabs. Even the moderates among the ultra-Orthodox have reservations about Zionism, though not fighting against it. Ultra Orthodox ideology forbids provocation against gentiles and supports com¬promise over matters involving the saving of endangered Jewish lives (Pikuah nefesh).
All this, however, is an abstraction for there is a vast gap between such moderate political ideology and the actual extremist sentiments of the Haredim
. This is largely a very nationalistically-inclined population and therefore very rightist. They are generally suspicious of people from a dif¬ferent religion and of the PLO, which, for them, consists not only of terror¬ists but also murderers of Jews. While Meir Porush claims that the ultra ¬Orthodox are less nationalistic than the secularists, he does not rule out political cooperation with a Palestinian faction in the municipality. "Rabin depends in the Knesset on Arab support, why shouldn't I?" he says.
With the background of Haredi
nationalism, Prof. Friedman has good rea¬son to believe that there is no real possibility of any alliance between the Haredim
and the Palestinians. He points out that even so, it is very convenient for the ultra-Orthodox to brandish the threat of Arab participation in munic¬ipal elections as this strengthens the Likud's dependence on the Haredim.