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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.

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.

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