In Jerusalem, a Parking Lot War

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 5, 2009

JERUSALEM, July 4 -- Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with riot police in central Jerusalem on Saturday night in the latest protest against the city's decision to open a municipal parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath.

Dressed in traditional cloaks and fur hats, demonstrators forced the closure of several major streets, and some hurled rocks at motorists along a Jerusalem highway, said police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld. No injuries were reported.

Known in Hebrew as "haredim," or those who fear God, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a growing percentage of Jerusalem's population and have targeted the opening of the parking lot as part of an ongoing struggle over the city's direction. They adhere to a rigid code of behavior, in which strict observance of the Sabbath is a central tenet.

"There is a difference between the desecration of the Sabbath on an individual basis and the cancellation of the Sabbath," said Rabbi Shimon Weiss, a leader of the Eda Haredit movement, which has promised weekly protests until Mayor Nir Barkat reverses his decision. "The opening of the parking lot will bring about the opening of shops and shopping malls and more Sabbath desecration."

Barkat's decision to open a lot near the Old City's Jaffa Gate aimed to solve a routine municipal problem -- a lack of weekend parking -- but disturbed the informal status quo regarding the period between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

During the Sabbath, most commerce is halted, though clusters of restaurants remain open, and certain roads are blocked to keep ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods quiet and car-free. But long-standing professional soccer games at the local stadium on Saturday are tolerated.

Municipal facilities are, as a rule, closed, so the decision to open the lot was seen as an official endorsement of driving on a day when Jewish law prohibits operating machinery, even pushing elevator buttons. On a recent Saturday, a steady trickle of cars flowed into the three-floor facility.

Barkat changed the location of the open lot to one farther from an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, promised it would be staffed by non-Jews and waived fees so money would not change hands, another Sabbath prohibition.

Still, the crowds have gathered. An estimated 30,000 people joined in a mass prayer one Friday night in June, and there are plans for a children's protest this week.

"It's as if they are calling upon the public to come and desecrate the Sabbath," said Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknop, secretary of the Rabbinical Committee for the Sanctity of the Sabbath. "It hurts us and hurts our feelings and the feelings of any believing Jew."

Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jews say they want the city properly honored as the world's holiest place. Secular residents, however, worry about intolerance and a loss of diversity, citing demands for gender-segregated buses, the recent jailing of a member of a "chastity squad" who assaulted a woman he thought was dressed immodestly and the decline of the secular Jewish population as Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities expand.

The ultra-Orthodox are expected to form a majority of Jerusalem's half-million Jewish residents in about a decade, according to a recent study by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. The community, generally poorer and often engaged in subsidized religious study rather than traditional jobs, has depressed Jerusalem's per capita income to among the lowest in Israel, the researchers estimated.

The study called for a broad effort to develop new industries and cultural centers to attract 100,000 people "of high socioeconomic status and human capital" -- just the type that might like convenient parking on a Saturday.

Barkat championed similar themes in his mayoral campaign and has spent his first months in office courting biotechnology companies, Hollywood production firms and others to try to lure the professionals turning to Tel Aviv.

Daniel Greenberg, a Hebrew University student, helped organize recent counter-demonstrations in favor of the parking lot.

"We want to have a Jerusalem that is suitable for everyone who wants to live here," he said.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company