Monday, 2 April 2012

An Orthodox Riot

The last day of my trip to Jerusalem was a Saturday. Shops were shut, public transport stopped, and deserted streets whispered “Shabbat”.

On an aimless walk I felt like a pagan in Ghostville, and then I sensed trouble. Wailing, distressed and heavy like elephant lamentation, resounded through the air. I walked up a hill and came upon Israeli soldiers in a brawl with Orthodox Jews. Men and boys in black scurried along the pavement, screaming in hypnotic unison. As cars passed, the noise grew more passionate and soldiers pushed kippa-clad boys away from the street.

"What the devil is going on", I asked a bystander.

“They are enforcing the day of rest, shouting ‘purity’ in Hebrew. Driving your car is forbidden."

I looked on in disbelief. A black SUV stopped in the middle of the scene and a sturdy Arab got out, brandishing a fist. Commotion ensued. Trembling with adrenaline, I took this picure when a boy pointed at me and shrieked, making heads turn.

This chaos is a regular occurence on the fringes of Mea Shearim, the city's Hassidic district. State authorities dispatch soldiers to protect its citizens, including less traditionalistic Jews, from the orthodox zealotry. Software engineer Neta S. from Tel Aviv told me: "On a weekend trip to Jerusalem we got lost with our car, and our GPS directed us past Mea Shearim. Groups of men shouted at us and we got scared they would attack. It felt surreal."

The ultra-orthodox make up a tenth of Israel's population. Exempt from military service, 60% of male Hassids live off state subsidies for full-time Torah study. Maybe this helps to explain excess energy on a Saturday, or the wrath against the feeding hand of a secular military state. And with a birth rate of 7.9 children per family, the Hassids' political influence is growing just as their upkeep is becoming increasingly unsustainable for Israel's economy. A situation heading for escalation.

After more screams and scuffling, I watch the Arab man get back into his car and drive off. Slowly the sun withdraws from the city as the groups disperse. Silence returns to the streets. For now.

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