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Israelis riot, thanks be to God

Orthodox Jews face off against secularists in the Holy Land — a sign that all is well.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew throws a potato at police during a protest against the opening of a parking lot in Jerusalem June 27, 2009. Ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting the opening of the parking lot on the Jewish sabbath clashed with police separating them and secular demonstrators who held a counter protest in support of the move. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

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.