Beliefs Culture

Orthodox and secular Jews fight over shaping Jerusalem’s character

In overwhelmingly Jewish West Jerusalem half the residents are ultra-Orthodox, the other half range from modern-Orthodox to secular. Photo courtesy Michele Chabin
Yossi Cohen, whose downtown Jerusalem convenience store has been operating on the Jewish Sabbath for 20 years, faces fines if he doesn't shutter his store from Friday night-Saturday night. Photo courtesy Michele Chabin

Yossi Cohen, whose downtown Jerusalem convenience store has been operating on the Jewish Sabbath for 20 years, faces fines if he doesn’t shutter his store from Friday night-Saturday night. Photo courtesy Michele Chabin

JERUSALEM — Yossi Cohen was shocked when city inspectors warned him last month to close his downtown convenience store during the Jewish Sabbath or else be socked with fines.

“For 20 years I’ve been open during Shabbat (the Hebrew for Sabbath) and suddenly the city decides I have to close?” said Cohen, one of eight convenience store owners ordered to shut down from sundown Friday until Saturday night.

“The message is clear: The municipality doesn’t want non-religious people in this city.”

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The closure order, which faces a court hearing next Wednesday (Sept. 16), was part of a compromise that Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently struck with ultra-Orthodox city council members who threatened to block a movie multiplex from opening on the Sabbath in a secular part of the city unless the convenience stores were shut on the Sabbath.

The mayor agreed to close the eight markets but allowed a dozen others in different Jewish neighborhoods to remain open on Saturdays.

The mini-market standoff is the latest battle over the religious character of this city between the ultra-Orthodox and more secular Jews.

The 330,000 residents in West Jerusalem — which is overwhelmingly Jewish, unlike the mostly Arab eastern part of the city — have very different views on how to observe the Sabbath. Roughly half the people are ultra-Orthodox, while the other half range from moderately Orthodox to secular, along with a few thousand Muslims and Christians.

“What we’re seeing in Jerusalem is part of a national battle over the public domain and who owns it,” said Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, which promotes freedom of religion in Israel. “How does Israel balance between a Jewish state, a democratic state and a state for all its citizens?”

 In overwhelmingly Jewish West Jerusalem half the residents are ultra-Orthodox, the other half range from modern-Orthodox to secular. Photo courtesy Michele Chabin

In overwhelmingly Jewish West Jerusalem half the residents are ultra-Orthodox, the other half range from modern-Orthodox to secular. Photo courtesy Michele Chabin

Haredi Jews, who hold more than a third of the city council seats and wield strong political clout in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s razor-thin coalition government, say being open on the Sabbath destroys the sanctity of the day of rest.

Over the years, thousands of Haredi men have clashed with police over such issues as where vehicles can drive on Saturdays to the opening of a municipal parking lot near the tourist-filled Old City. Now they are trying to halt plans for a rent-a-bike program unless the bicycles stand idle on the Sabbath.

Arieh King, a Haredi city councilman, said the mayor is simply enforcing a nationwide law by shutting the convenient stores on Saturday, even though the law is often ignored.

“We have the same law in Tel Aviv and Haifa, but it’s much more important in Jerusalem because this is the holy city. We want to maintain the unique, special character of the city, the very thing that draws tourists here,” he said.

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King said the law also protects the rights of workers, “including secular workers who want to spend the day resting and being with their families.”

Einav Bar, a secular city councilwoman, said even the city’s secular residents savor the “quiet, family-centered atmosphere that envelops West Jerusalem on Friday afternoons,” when public transport and shops shut down before the start of the Sabbath.

But she fears the mayor’s crackdown “could drive non-religious residents and tourists from the city.”

Since Barkat, who is secular, became mayor in 2008, Bar said, “many more restaurants and entertainment spots have been open on Shabbat, and the exodus of non-religious residents has slowed. These strides won’t continue if people don’t feel welcome.”

In response, the city noted that current law allows restaurants, cinemas and entertainment spots to remain open on the Sabbath, and that will continue.

That is little comfort to Yinoun Elkayam, a mini-market owner threatened with closure.

“A third of my business occurs on Shabbat. If I can’t work on Shabbat my business won’t survive,” he said. “I let people live the way they want to. Why can’t they let me do the same?”

About the author

Michele Chabin


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  • Why not let G-d decide. He’ll go for the orthodox view if it’s Jerusalem. If you want secular move to Tel Aviv or Haifa. But Jerusalem should observe the sabbath.

  • This Judaic-Christian says that Judaism is a religion because of Shabbat and monotheism. Jerusalem (at least) should observe Shabbat, whether observant or not.
    In the U.S., most stores were closed on Sunday (some still are) and most government offices are still closed on Saturday and Sunday!
    You will not lose business for just one 24 hour period.

  • These discussions will not go away. They will never be completely resolved until Yeshua returns and reigns from Jerusalem. Then there will be no further discussion. Everyone will know what to do. That day seems to approaching quickly, but G-d only knows exactly when. For now, we just need to be sure that we are clean before G-d. That we are obedient to Him by believing on Yeshua, who is the Lamb of G-d that takes away our sins. Receive Him as Savior and Lord. Turn away from sin and doctrines of men. Abide in Him and walk in the power and direction of His Holy Spirit. Then you will know the peace of G-d that passes all understanding. Shalom

  • “Heavenly Jerusalem” will soon be ruling over mankind on earth (Hebrews 12:22; Rev. 21:2, 10). Yeshua, the son of Yahweh, the only true God (Psalm 83:18) referred to his kingdom as a heavenly government (Matthew 4:17). He further stated his kingdom was no part of this world (John 18:36), confirming that fact.

    The glorious rule by Yeshua will soon bring grand blessings to man on earth after all wicked ones are done away with (Psalm 37:10,11; Isaiah 11:1-9; Rev. 21:3,4).

    Yahweh’s will shall finally be done, as in heaven, also upon earth, when that heavenly government finally comes and his son, Yeshua, fully exercises his rule as King upon man on earth (Matt. 6:10; Daniel 2:44).

  • Shopkeepers and entertainment venues want to stay open on Shabbat, because they get so much business. Note that this shopkeeper gets 1/3 of his entire week’s business on Shabbat. The people have control over this. Don’t shop on the Sabbath. Don’t go see movies on the Sabbath. Then there will be no reason for these venues to stay open. Even secular Jews can respect the Sabbath. There are six other days to go shopping and see movies, watch sports.

  • Why do we bother with these “news” items as there are only 14 million members of Judaism on the globe these days.

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

    Baha’i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

  • Bernardo, what is your point? Where do you suppose Christianity comes from? How about Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, do you have any idea who he was? Your post shows that you have no idea of the importance of Jerusalem, and Israel, and the Jewish people. You may want to read a BIble before writing any other posts. Yeshua/Jesus is the promised Messiah born of Israel. Jesus was Jewish. The Savior of the world is Jewish. All who come to G-d for forgiveness of sins must come through Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the only provision that G-d has given mankind. All roads lead to Jerusalem, indeed.

  • Because God doesn’t vote in the Jerusalem city council.

    There comes a point where religious concerns have to give way to civil ones in a democratic society. The compulsion to force others to abide by one’s religious belief is not tolerable in a free and open society. If the government of the city of Jerusalem values democratic principles, it has to rein in the theocratic efforts of the ultra-orthodox.

    Why should the interests of shop owners, secular Jews and people of other faiths living in the city be ignored here? Where is their representation here?

  • Mark,

    Now for some added history:

    origin: NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation. ”

    And passages from John’s gospel? Said gospel is historically nil !!!