The Ultra-Orthodox and Shabbat

18 Nov

After the disappointment of not getting my visa application fully sorted last week, it was time to experience my first full weekend in Jerusalem, not that anything out of the ordinary happened this weekend. It’s just that it still takes time to adjust your days of the week to fit around a weekend where Thursday evenings here are like our Fridays, and Sunday mornings are as dreary and full of dread as our own Monday mornings; not to mention the Shabbat laws which are effectively in full enforcement from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday evening. The notion that the entire public transport apparatus along with the majority of shops, restaurants, businesses etc. shut up shop for the best part of 30 hours is something pretty alien for anyone who has become so accustomed to the 24 hours-a-day 7 days-a-week commercial life.

So yes, Shabbat is the supposed day of rest for all Jewish Israelis, especially those of the more ultra-orthodox leanings. Now I will leave it for another occasion to write about some of the more obscure rules that regulate what actions are considered permissible on Shabbat, but just to give you an idea it is pretty much forbidden for them to do literally anything, from turning on electrical appliances, making phone calls, turning on the TV etc.

However, this Saturday at the height of Shabbat, a group of ultra-orthodox men used their “day of rest” to converge en masse in front of the newly built Intel microchip plant to demonstrate against it operating on Shabbat as well as employing Jews to work on Shabbat. “Shabbas! Shabbas!” chants filled the air (the Yiddish work for Shabbat) and as tensions rose stones were thrown at journalists, while the deputy mayor was attacked upon his arrival to scene for not having intervened earlier on the side of the ultra-orthodox. This begs the question whether the ultra-orthodox are themselves violating their very own strict Shabbat rules when engaging in such violent activity?

A Group of Ultra-Orthodox Men Protesting Outside Intel (Haaretz, 14/12/09)

Now I am all for respecting the cultural and religious sensitivities of the ultra-orthodox, they have the right to live out their way of life as they see fit – even if many of their traditions and practices hark back to a bygone era (e.g. women must sit at the back of the buses while the men sit in the front). But surely there must be limits…

Although my sense of geography is still a bit sketchy I am pretty sure this Intel plant is nowhere near any of the ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods, but in an industrial park on one of the main roads leading out of Jerusalem. It’s not as if they if they’ve planted their factory in the heart of a religious neighbourhood. The ultra-orthodox complain that the mere opening of the plant on the Shabbat, not only violates their day of rest but also the sanctity of the holy city.

This is by no means the first incidence of the ultra-orthodox community exercising their outrage at the opening of buildings or public spaces on Shabbat. Over the summer the issue has been of a parking lot in central Jerusalem that was open on Shabbat – yes, violent riots ensued over a parking lot! These violent groups remain a minority within the ultra-orthodox community, but as acts carried about by Palestinians show, it only takes the violent actions of a few for a negative characteristic to be stamped upon a whole group.

Intel has since warned that they are ready to abandon their operations in Israel if these disruptions persist. Despite its huge symbolic importance, Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorest cities and desperately needs to keep hold of the few multinational high-tech companies that choose to base themselves here.

The Arab/Israeli divide may be the most documented of divisions that exist in Jerusalem, but in the day-to-day running of the Jewish parts of the city it is the secular/ultra-orthodox divide that is most apparent. While the two communities tend to self-segregate themselves into separate neighbourhoods, the growing ultra-orthodox population has been able to use their growing political leverage to expand religious preferences into the municipal decision-making. This movement hit a snag in road last year when the city’s mayorship was wrestled back from the ultra-orthodox party by a more secular leadership. Hence the sudden rise this year in ultra-orthodox demonstrations.

It all makes for a very complicated, but intriguing city; the near-insurmountable Arab/Israeli divide alongside the equally intricate and divisive clefts between the ultra-orthodox and secular Jerusalemites. It’s only a surprise that tensions don’t overflow more often. It really does make good old London seem like the multicultural paradise.

Just before posting this I stumbled across a news article in the local Haartez newspaper that while the factory will continue to work on Saturdays they have decided to reach a compromise with the ultra-orthodox community by agreeing to employ only non-Jews on the Saturday (Intel to employ only non-Jews at Jerusalem plant on Shabbat) Perhaps I should send them a CV 🙂 – well that’s if I had work permit.

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Posted by on November 18, 2009 in Jerusalem, Jewish Life


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