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Israel's 'Shabbat War' Heats Up With Jerusalem Feeling the Squeeze

  • Reuters

A man stands nearby as a "24/7" open sign is seen at the entrance of a food store in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 20, 2016.

A man stands nearby as a "24/7" open sign is seen at the entrance of a food store in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 20, 2016.

On the first Friday evening that Jerusalem restaurant Azza 40 opened without a kosher license, allowing it to serve customers on the Jewish sabbath, crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested outside, threatening to smash windows and burn the place down.

"It was crazy," said Reut Cohen, 29, the restaurant's owner and head chef, recalling the events of September 2014. "The police came, the street was blocked, there were religious people yelling, swearing, even spitting at us."

It was just one of many protests, most of them peaceful, that ultra-Orthodox groups have mounted against cafes, restaurants and cinemas that open on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day. Several have been led by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus.

Azza, 40, is still going strong, with Friday nights and Saturdays the busiest days of the week, despite occasional disruptions. But the pressure on businesses not to open between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday has increased, fueling tension between the growing Orthodox community and those who feel religious strictures are impinging on their freedom.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the potential fallout of what's been dubbed by local media the "Shabbat war" came this month in Tel Aviv, a city normally known for its secularism.

Work on a new railway station and track maintenance had to be suspended on a Saturday after complaints from religious parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

It was a desecration of the holy day, said the chief rabbinate, which had largely ignored such work in the past but had been facing pressure in ultra-Orthodox newspapers and on social media to demand it stop.

"Shabbat is not open to negotiation and haggling, and there's no place to compromise its sanctity," said the chief rabbis in a statement explaining their position.

As a result, work was moved that weekend to Sunday, the start of Israel's week, causing traffic meltdown as the main Tel Aviv highway was partially shut down. Special buses - ironically organized on a Saturday - were laid on.

The dispute caused turmoil in Netanyahu's cabinet, with the transport minister, who supported Saturday work, on the firing line. He kept his job, and construction was quietly resumed a week later, including on Saturdays, a sign neither Netanyahu nor his ultra-Orthodox partners wanted the coalition derailed.

But while Tel Aviv was briefly shaken by the debacle, the sharp end of Shabbat tension remains Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox make up a third of the population, an increase of five percentage points over the last decade, and religion is never far from any issue.

‘It’s a desert’

This week, Jerusalem's municipality charged eight grocery store owners with violating bylaws that prevent businesses in the city center from opening on Shabbat. The increasing sway of the ultra-Orthodox in the city, in numbers and politically, means the municipality is under constant pressure to clamp down.

The results are uneven: One cinema chain closes on Shabbat, another stays open, despite protests. In some cases, businesses have found convoluted solutions to allow restaurants in the center to operate on the holy day, when tourists are often at a loss to find anywhere to eat.

Last year, Cafe Landwer, a chain of around 60 coffee shops, opened a site in Independence Park, an attractive green space close to the Old City, across from the U.S. Consulate. It wanted to operate on Friday evenings and Saturdays to cater to tourists and secular customers. But an ultra-Orthodox group opposed the move and threatened to withdraw the kosher certification granted to Landwer Coffee, a separate company owned by the same family, if it didn't change policy.

Cafe Landwer franchised the restaurant and its name has changed to Alma Cafe, although the menus still say Cafe Landwer.

There are occasional protests by the ultra-Orthodox, but it stays open on Shabbat, its busiest day of the week.

"It's one of the few places in the centre of Jerusalem that is open on Saturdays, so everyone comes here," said manager Karina Topaz, 23. "When we first opened, a few people came and yelled at us, but now it's okay."

In nearby German Colony, a wealthy neighborhood of old stone houses, there is no such permissiveness. Whereas 10 years ago there were two or three cafes on its tree-lined main street that operated on Shabbat, now there are none.

"At the weekend, it's like a desert. It's dead," said Orly Turgeman, 35, who manages a small hotel in the neighborhood. "You have the feeling there's nothing left in Jerusalem. There's not the environment of an open, pluralistic city."

The ultra-Orthodox population, with its dress code of black hats and coats, has a birthrate more than twice the national average, making it Israel's fastest growing group.

German Colony has become more religious over the years, with its many elderly, Orthodox residents keen to maintain the traditional calm of Shabbat. The same is true of Kiryat Shmuel, the neighborhood where Azza 40 is located.

"I am very much not in favor of restaurants opening on Shabbat," said Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, whose home and synagogue are around the corner from Azza 40. "It disturbs the Shabbat atmosphere of the place, besides being against Jewish law."

Reut Cohen, the owner, is unfazed. She now offers pork and shellfish on the menu - both distinctly non-kosher - and is determined to stand up for secular principles.

"It's critical for our business, the neighborhood, the city and the country," she said. "If the religious don't want to come, that's fine, but they have to live and let live."

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