Israelis riot, thanks be to God

JERUSALEM — Ultra-orthodox Jews have been rioting the last few weeks against a parking lot the municipality wants to leave open during the Jewish Sabbath, leading to dozens of arrests and quite a few moderate to serious injuries. Secular activists have held protests in favor of free garaging for those who defy God by driving on Saturday.

All of which is a sign of good times in Israel.

Here’s why: It shows that Israelis think there’s nothing worse to worry about.

When I first came to Jerusalem in 1996, the ultra-Orthodox, or "Haredim" as they’re known here (it means “those who quake,” as in quaking before the wrathful God of the Jewish Bible) used to riot over a major thoroughfare that ran through one of their neighborhoods. They wanted Bar-Ilan Street closed between sundown Friday and the onset of Saturday night.

The Sabbath, they argued, ought to be sacred to every Jew, but at the very least no one ought to drive along Bar-Ilan, reminding them that its sanctity was being violated (by people who in turning their keys in the ignition were violating the rabbinic commandment not to kindle a flame on the Sabbath. It’s one of 39 tasks “set aside” on the Sabbath, because they were used in building the Ark of Covenant and therefore shouldn’t be carried out on the day of rest. No ritual slaughtering, tanning — of leather, that is — or separating of threads is allowed either, for example).

In my neighborhood, there was one old white-bearded rabbi who used to sit on a stool at the side of the road reading and wagging his finger at me as I drove by. But in more religious neighborhoods there was real violence. In Mea Shearim, the heart of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, gangs of black-hatted rioters used to light trash cans on fire, throw stones, kick and spit on journalists, and aim rather feeble punches at policemen. (Feeble because almost all the rioters are full-time yeshiva students who are, to say the least, short on regular physical activity.)

Secular activists used to counter-protest in Jerusalem. They’d turn up, too, at shopping malls near largely secular Tel Aviv to barrack the so-called “Sabbath inspectors,” non-Jews employed by the government to hand out fines to businesses that opened on the holy day.

This was among the most important issues of those days.

Then came the intifada. The Sabbath wasn’t so contentious anymore with suicide bombers working every day of the week. Maybe it’s also that Israeli Jews decided it was time to unite against their attackers.

But a month ago, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (who replaced his ultra-Orthodox predecessor this spring) decided to leave a parking lot beside city hall open through the Sabbath. There are plenty of restaurants and bars open Friday night on a nearby street and Barkat’s aim was to prevent that street from filling with poorly parked cars.

Trouble was the lot wasn’t far from the edge of Beit Israel, one of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods stretching through central Jerusalem. Rabbis ordered out their spindly troops and rioting ensued.

Barkat switched the parking lot to one underneath the Old City walls beside the Jaffa Gate. If he’d started out there, things might’ve been different. But the rabbis had a good head of steam up and had returned to the rhetoric of my early days in Jerusalem — namely that secular Israelis were the worst anti-Semites, because they were self-hating and felt inadequate in the face of the dedication to religion of their ultra-Orthodox compatriots whose observance they wished to destroy.

So this past weekend the rioting reached a new stage of ugliness. Police arrested 57 ultra-Orthodox protesters, many of whom had bussed in for the Sabbath. One man fell off a wall and was in serious condition in hospital. The riots continued throughout Sunday, as the ultra-Orthodox protested for the release of those who had been arrested the previous day. The riots centered around Sabbath Square in the middle of Mea Shearim.

There are plenty of problems for Israel these days, not least the tortuous attempt by the current right-wing government to persist with settlement building in the face of (for the first time in years) genuine American insistence on a construction freeze. It isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, too, that Europe might get tough on Israel unless peace talks with the Palestinians show some fruit.

But in comparison to the intifada, these are easy times for Israel. Long may the Sabbath be a time for rioting.

Read more on Israel:

When poets do the talking

Netanyahu holds his line

Who will blink on Israeli settlements?