Jerusalem, Israel: The Complications

So Shabbat in Israel is taken very seriously in most of the country, with the exception of Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem, of course, attracts the more dedicated members of any faith, and thus hosts a large population of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

You have to understand that these guys are deeply opposed to any sort of activity during Shabbat (which is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset).  No work of any sort, no driving, no operation of electricity – the security devices surrounding the Western Wall actually required special rabbianic dispensation, as stepping through it would otherwise be a violation of the Orthodox interpretation of Shabbat and prevent them from accessing the Western Wall during its busiest period.  Fair enough, to be honest.  Since I arrived in Israel, I’ve found Shabbat to be agreeable so long as you’re prepared, and I’ve found it a good analogue to the Sunday trading hours that used to operate in Britain.  24 hours of religiously enforced rest, with the majority of businesses closed, is a good way of defending one’s right to a day off.

‘Enforced’, however, has multiple interpretations in Israel.

Apologies for the terrible camera work.

These are the Hasidim, Ashkenazi Jews whose Orthodoxy is legendary.  ‘Shabbas’, they yell at passing cars, restrained by police and IDF (for whom there is no Shabbat today).  ‘Shabbas!’  The children, who are perhaps half their number, are just as insistent: I see one spit on the car of a passing woman, who leaps out and insults them in Hebrew as they run away: she herself is Jewish, but follows a less constrictive interpretation of Shabbat.  It’s people like her they are objecting to: those who keep Shabbat as a family event and day of rest closer to a modern Sunday in Britain.  From this distance it’s hard to be certain, but I think I see tears and I definitely see rage, as later she drives right back to harangue them.  The police hold her back too.  She is the only woman on that side of the street.

Before the police get them pinned to one side of the street, throwing back the children and adults alike, they try and swarm the cars, and sling insults at the counter-protest of liberal Israelis that has begun to challenge them in the last few weeks (no-one is certain when the Shabbat protests in Me’a She’arim, an Orthodox neighbourhood, started, but agreement is on a long time ago).

One of the men in the yellow begins shouting at us, a group of pan-Western tourists, some Jews.  ‘Why do you not keep Shabbat?  It is in the Torah!”  Before I get the chance to light the blue touch paper and assert atheism in the City of God, a furious debate is raging between a Jewish friend of mine and this man (whose clothes identify him as ultra-Orthodox, a member of a group that thinks the state of Israel shouldn’t have been formed as the Messiah hasn’t yet appeared).  One of my friends demands to know how such an obstructive protest with children spitting on cars and (not witnessed by this author who has no proof) attacks on Arab youths squares with any version of Shabbat.  ‘It’s a shame you don’t keep Shabbat,’ says the ultra-Orthodox man, who seems to me a giant in flowing robes, his beard obscuring his neck.  “It’s a shame Jews are spitting on other Jews,” my friend retorts, baring his kippa as an assertion of his Jewish identity.

The presence of so many observers – some local counter-protesters, but with a frankly incredible number of tourists and ‘protest-watchers’ – seems to me have changed the vibe of the protest.  By the time I leave I’ve witnessed nothing else but awkward stand-off.

So why am I telling you all this?  Because this is a direct consequence of history.  Israel isn’t a monolithic entity, the one we get on the news as ’embattled Jewish state’ or as ‘colonialist jackbooters’.  Israel itself has some severe internal conflicts: as the one and only Jewish state, questions of what exactly it means to be Jewish and how one should practice Judaism wrack the state of Israel and Judaism itself with a force unheard-of since the fall of the Second Temple and Jewish diaspora in AD 70.

For the first time in almost two thousand years the myriad strands of Judaism, having followed different paths in different parts of the world, having evolved and changed as their environments and local authorities dictated, embracing mysticism and theology, jurism and literalism, are in the same neighbourhoods of the same cities, in a democracy under the same laws.  It’s as if all Protestants moved to Wittenberg one day.

‘Jewishness’ is a wide tent, and that’s what’s obvious on the streets of Me’a She’raim.  Jerusalem isn’t just fought over by three world religions: it’s also fought over by the sects of each one.


5 responses to “Jerusalem, Israel: The Complications”

  1. Gerry says :

    Excellent commentary – liked the comment about ‘Protestants all moving to Wittenberg’. Is this also true of Catholics? Probably not – all heresy and schisms have been firmly dealt with over the centuries by the centralised bureaucracy of Rome?

  2. jmmcdowell says :

    Even 24-7 news coverage cannot handle the complexities of today’s human cultures and societies. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t even try. But if we don’t understand the history behind modern relations, we’ll never move forward or get others to understand us.

  3. Jeff says :

    Hi Calum, visited your blog today for the first time. Nice to see archaeology is taking you to some eye-opening corners of the earth. Keep up the writing…

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