Robert Fulford's column about ultra-Orthodoxy in Jerusalem

(Globe and Mail, June 4, 1997)

Senator Daniel P. Moynihan says in his recent book, Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Societies work only if culture and politics are reconciled, but they are in conflict everywhere these days, and nowhere more dramatically than among the divided Jews of Jerusalem.

The 4-A bus that takes me from my apartment in downtown Jerusalem up to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University (where I'm roosting for a few weeks) weaves through the most contentious urban district on the planet, Mea She'arim. From the bus window you don't need to read the street signs to know where you are. Suddenly crowds of ordinary office workers are replaced by legions of men in black--black suits, black hats, usually black earlocks.

They are called, by everyone except themselves, "the black hatters." They belong to the growing ultra-Orthodox haredi community (haredi literally means "trembling," as in "trembling before the lord"). Suddenly they dominate the streets, and we bus riders move like time travellers from a bustling, modern city into an 18th-century Jewish village in Poland and then quickly back to modernity. In the process we visit a conflict of cultures that has lately coloured discussion of the future of Jerusalem.

The people in Mea She'arim, and in similar communities elsewhere, live much as their ancestors did in eastern Europe centuries ago. They read no newspapers, hear no radio, watch no TV. They are exempt from army service (a source of bitterness among other Israelis) and they are as opposed to the state of Israel as they are to birth control--just getting them to participate in the 1995 national census required an elaborate dance of diplomacy. They are passionate about female "modesty," and will sometimes throw stones at women whose legs and arms are not, in the haredi view, adequately covered. The black hatters are even more fanatical about keeping the Sabbath, and about drivers who intrude on what they consider their haredi streets between sundown Friday and Saturday.

While many other things are prohibited on the Sabbath in Mea She'arim, stoning is acceptable--even, apparently, mandatory. This grotesque tradition goes back decades. In Muriel Spark's 1965 novel, The Mandelbaum Gate, she mentions that "the Orthodox Jews would gather on a Saturday morning, piously to stone the passing motor-cars, breakers of the Sabbath. And across the street, streamers stretched from building to building, bearing an injunction in Hebrew, French and English: DAUGHTERS OF ISRAEL, OBSERVE MODESTY IN THESE STREETS!"

This year, as supporters of the party in power, the black hatters won a concession. Two weeks ago, after battles with the police made international news, the government closed Bar-Ilan street to all traffic, except emergency vehicles and local residents, for an hour and 45 minutes from the start of the Sabbath on Friday night, then from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, and then during the last hour and 45 minutes before the end of the Sabbath.

But this didn't mollify the black hatters. On the first Sabbath of the limited traffic ban, they were out once again, lining the street, stoning the cars that went by during the hours when driving was permitted. They didn't pause to savour their triumph, which to them was not a triumph but merely one tiny step toward recreating what they believe to be the only authentic and virtuous Jewish culture.

Secular Israelis and Jews from elsewhere have habitually looked on Mea She'arim with tolerance, even affection. While most Jews in Jerusalem rarely go to a synagogue, they are vaguely allied with Orthodox Judaism. The synagogue they don't attend is an Orthodox synagogue.

But their patience for the black hatters is wearing thin. I talked for a long time, for instance, with an angry secular woman who told me that she and her husband and their friends speak constantly of leaving Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. If they go, it will be because the fanatical haredi influence has poisoned the cultural atmosphere of the city.

A columnist in Jerusalem Report magazine, Ze'ev Chafets, argued recently that Orthodox intransigence may eventually affect Israeli policy on Jerusalem. For decades, politicians of all parties have held firmly to the opinion that Jerusalem is non-negotiable; none of it can ever be given up. Palestinians, on the other hand, insist that East Jerusalem should be their capital. But if feelings about Jerusalem change among the secular majority of Israelis, then perhaps an accommodation with the Palestinians could eventually be made.

As Chafets says, "Once most Israelis, even the least observant, felt a deep attachment to Jerusalem. But as the city has grown increasingly ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist, it has become a symbol of religious repression and fanaticism to many." Can the annoyance of the secular Israelis reach the point where it will reshape policy? Certainly, as Alice Shalvi wrote last week in the Jerusalem Post, many Israelis now believe that rifts within the Jewish population have reached the point where they are potentially more harmful than the conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

Up at Hebrew University, a professor of political science told me, with a rueful weariness, "One of the ironies of the state of Israel is that we have a Jewish problem." On the bus back downtown, moving again through Mea She'arim, I read the first lines of W. N. Herbert's poem, "The Angel of Tourism," in the Times Literary Supplement--

The angel cannot land;
she is those parts of a city
that even when you visit
you don't quite understand.

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