Jerusalem may explode into Belfast-like battle if extremism isnt stopped

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Whom to root for in the ongoing war over Jerusalem's Bar Ilan Street?

It's certainly hard to support the haredi (ultrareligious) community, who — in an effort to close the well-traveled street to motorized traffic on Shabbat — pelted secular motorists with stones, eggs, rotten tomatoes and dirty diapers (dirty diapers?!).

I've never understood how there could be any ethical justification — much less halachic justification — for the bloodshed that haredi rock-throwing can and does cause. Surely, then, these literal black hats are the metaphoric black hats of this sordid story; they're the real villains.

On the other hand, it's quite hard to root for the secular Jews, led by politicians of the leftist Israeli party Meretz. Ornan Yekutieli, the leader of the secular group attempting to keep the road open for Shabbat traffic, has referred to haredi leaders as "ayatollahs," and to efforts to close the road as "harking back to the Dark Ages," and as "a step towards Tehran."

From the extreme and insulting nature of the rhetoric, we can see that Yekutieli and his cohorts have only disdain and contempt for the sacredness of Shabbat. With just a slight attempt at spiritual empathy, they could see that closing the road to Sabbath traffic is not "a step towards Tehran," but a step towards holiness.

Besides, it was the Meretz leaders who provoked the violence in the first place, by sending a noisy motorcade down the street through a religious neighborhood one Shabbat afternoon. So they must be the bad guys. We'll root for the haredim.

Who, then, is the real villain? It's extremism. One of the saddest, most tragic phenomena in contemporary Jewish life is how moderation has virtually fled Judaism's most important city.

Of course, this has been going on for a long time, without much publicity. When I was a rabbinical student, I lived for a few weeks in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, where I davened at the quarter's Conservative synagogue. I lived next door to an apartment of secular Jews, and watched in dismay as those young Israelis were harassed, hounded and eventually forced to leave the neighborhood. Eventually, the Conservative synagogue closed down because of similar pressures.

That same year, secular Jews unleashed several minipogroms on haredi neighborhoods, covering synagogues with offensive, Nazi-like graffiti, and tossing garbage and toilet paper all through the streets. It was simply amazing to think that this desecration was not the work of anti-Semites, but of Jews.

Even Israel's chief rabbinate, headquartered in Jerusalem, has gotten into the extremist act. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, the Sephardic chief rabbi, recently gave a radio sermon about Pinchas, the biblical character who — in an act of zealotry — stabbed, in one fell swoop, an Israelite named Zimri, and his Midianite lover. Rabbi Doron, while praising Pinchas' act, compared Zimri to Reform rabbis, leaving the impression (though I'm sure this is not what he meant) that stabbing Reform rabbis is a laudatory act.

"Sometimes," the rabbi said, referring to Reform Judaism, "there is a plague in the Jewish people. It needs to be stopped. It is necessary to go outside the ordinary and to do a zealous act…" And this comes from Jerusalem's most prominent spiritual leader. Frightening.

Last month, at Tisha B'Av, we cried for Jerusalem and mourned its destruction by enemies. Today there are still good reasons to cry for Jerusalem. Not because of enemies, who are — for once — weak and disorganized, but because Jerusalem is in danger of becoming a Jewish Belfast, a city of endemic civil violence.

What a sad and ironic fate for the modern center of the Zionist renaissance, and for Judaism's most holy city, the city of peace.

Pirkei Avot, an old rabbinic text, tells us that at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, miraculously, "the people stood crowded together, yet knelt [to pray] in ease." We could easily read this as meaning that despite a population crowded with ideologies and spiritual outlooks, everyone could still live their lives with ease.

Miraculously, there was tolerance, moderation and mutual understanding. Apparently this miracle didn't last long enough; the rabbis tell us that ancient Jerusalem was not destroyed by external enemies, but by "causeless hatred."

If we don't do something soon to bring back moderation to the streets of Jerusalem, we may all be mourning once again. For a great dream that was tarnished and nearly destroyed in the rubble of burning cars and dirty diapers.