News analysis: On Black Sabbath, religious and secular battle again

JERUSALEM — The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly faced its first crisis this week — because of a 660-yard stretch of road.

But the road was the flashpoint for secular-religious tensions that are as old as the state itself. The latest battle involved stone-throwers, a convoy of cars and billy-club wielding mounted police.

For 5,000 ultrareligious residents of neighborhoods straddling Bar Ilan Street, nothing less was at stake than the Jewish character of the city — and country.

For secular Israelis, the issue was allowing all Israelis to enjoy full freedom — including freedom from religious observance.

Bar Ilan Street has for years been the object of ultrareligious campaigns to stop traffic from winding through religious neighborhoods on Shabbat.

But with Netanyahu's recent victory — and with three religious parties in his governing coalition — the haredim, as the ultrareligious are known, saw a chance to win their campaign.

Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy, of the National Religious Party, adopted a compromise Friday of last week previously recommended by a public committee.

The Sturm Committee, named after its chairman, Elazar Sturm, included Israelis from all portions of the religious spectrum, including nonobservant Jews.

The committee recognized that given the diverse nature of Jerusalem's population, in which the ultrareligious represent about 30 percent of the capital city's 410,000 residents, the only way to deal with the conflict was by closing the street on the Sabbath and religious holidays, but only during times of prayer services.

However, the recommendation was not put into effect when it was issued during the previous Labor-led government.

Levy's decision was made so quickly that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who joined Netanyahu on his trip last week to the United States, expressed surprise in New York that he was not consulted.

Back home, Olmert implied he supported the committee's plans. Netanyahu avoided the issue.

The haredi community smelled victory after Levy issued the order to reimpose the partial traffic ban last week, but then the High Court of Justice stepped in.

Responding to appeals by Labor, the court issued an interim order leaving the road open for 15 days until the government could justify why it should close.

The ultrareligious community began protesting Friday night of last week and returned to confront Sabbath traffic.

Followers of the ultrasecularist Meretz Party joined in a car convoy to drive along Bar Ilan to demonstrate their right to drive wherever — and whenever — they wanted.

The confrontation turned ugly. Thousands of haredim gathered on the road, which runs down the hill from the entrance to Jerusalem toward the northern areas of Ramot Sharet and French Hill.

They shouted "Shabbos, Shabbos" at the cars, and threw stones, soiled baby diapers and garbage at police guarding the street.

By Saturday night, police used force, chasing stone-throwers along the adjacent roads and using clubs against those who resisted.

Witnesses said police entered apartments to apprehend religious protesters; local residents complained that police even used force against women and children.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, of the ultrareligious United Torah Judaism bloc, called the day "Black Sabbath" and described police actions as a "pogrom."

Ravitz even threatened to quit Netanyahu's coalition unless Jerusalem Police Chief Aryeh Amit was fired. Amit insisted his police had done the minimum to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

Ravitz ultimately backed off from the threat but made it clear the conflicts could threaten Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Tempers cooled after the weekend, but each side signaled they would return to the fray this coming Shabbat.

And on Sunday night, a 25-year-old Jerusalem woman was attacked by an estimated 50 haredi men, the Jerusalem Post reported.

She was trying to enter her parked car in the capital's Rehov B'nai B'rith, which borders on the religious Geula neighborhood.

Police believe the men may have been provoked by what they believe was her immodest attire, a summer dress.

During the week, both sides said they would stick to their guns.

Yossi Sarid, chairman of Meretz, warned that "if secular indifference continues, secular people will no longer be able to live in Jerusalem."

Meretz activists said there were practical reasons for their stance. Bar Ilan is the only direct link between Jerusalem's entrance and its northern neighborhoods, and is the fastest route for ambulances to reach Hadassah Hospital's Mount Scopus branch.

But the secularists mainly warned that they had to draw a line in the sand with Bar Ilan Street.

Some haredi spokesmen were already vowing to close a road linking the outlying neighborhood of Ramot to Pisgat Ze'ev and French Hill in northern Jerusalem, and closing more streets in the predominantly religious town of B'nai Brak outside Tel Aviv.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a haredi activist, said his community simply did not recognize the High Court of Justice's authority, and would only rely on rulings of the rabbinical court.

Others downplayed the latest religious-secular flare-up. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau pointed at previous compromises in which roads were being closed down near synagogues on Saturdays.

Sturm, a secular Jew, warned that secularists had little choice but to compromise with the haredim, whose population is outpacing the secular in Jerusalem.

"Unless the secular Jews develop models of compromise with the haredim, they will be faced with the haredim enforcing their will on the secular population once they are in power."