Riots, burning garbage, stones, smashed cars and police action have dominated the news for the past week in the holy city but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard or read about the nasty violence. It is not the Palestinians wreaking havoc but bands of ultra-Orthodox Jews. An unusual sight to see groups of men in long black coats and hats -- utterly well-dressed for a protest outing -- lobbing their weapons of choice.
The ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, as they are formally known, have been angry for a while but the latest outburst was sparked when police arrested a woman from their community on charge of child abuse. The woman, five-months pregnant, is accused of starving one of her four children for nearly two years. The police have proof on camera and evidence from social workers but all that is gibberish to the Haredi community, which sees the arrest as an attack on itself and its life-style. The woman in question reportedly suffers from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a condition where the mother deliberately makes her child sick to get attention and sympathy.
Doctors were puzzled for months as the mother brought her sickly 3-year-old periodically to the hospital. He weighed only 7 kilos and they couldn’t figure out why. Until they installed a camera in the room and caught the mother disconnecting the feeding tube at night. It is a horrific case of child abuse and a very, very sick mother. But for the insular and angry Haredi, it is just another lie by the secular Jews to besmirch the conservative.
But why resort to regular or secular methods of protest? The chosen of the chosen don’t answer. Instead they destroy precious property in the centre of Jerusalem and in their own neighbourhood of Mea Sharim where they rule with an iron hand. On Sabbath, if anyone is spotted driving a car or doing anything that doesn’t qualify as “rest”, he might run into an army of young Haredi boys armed with stones. It has become a “dare” for tourists looking for extreme fun to drive through Mea Sharim on a Saturday. The city stopped municipal services in the neighbourhood following the most recent protests because workers no longer felt safe. Jerusalem’s police chief Aharon Franco dourly observed: “I have not found a single place in the Bible where it is written that these actions are permissible.”
There is just too much going on that makes the Haredi angry. Of course, they don’t like all the things you normally expect the dedicated crust of any religion to dislike -- pre-marital sex, provocative photos of women, current clothing tendencies of teenage girls, drinking, smoking, and on and on. But they also don’t like government-owned parking lots -- to operate on Sabbath.
We had just gone through the strange case of parking lot protests by the ultra-Orthodox where thousands of Haredi men converged and battled with police, burning and destroying city property because Jerusalem’s secular mayor dared to order that it open on Saturdays. The Haredi called it a “declaration of war” by the “seculars” and vowed to die for the cause. Over the past year, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have forced department stores to cover up mannequins in bathing suits in the resort city of Tiberias and wipe out pictures of Kadima Party leader, Tzipi Livni, during the election campaign.
Buses operating in Haredi communities are now segregated with women allowed to sit only at the back. Where is their Rosa Parks, I wonder. But what took the cake was blocking women members of the Knesset Choir from performing inside the main parliament chamber lest they offend Haredi members. There are funny ones too -- the Knesset passed a law in 2001 requiring buildings that have more than one elevator to install a special “Sabbath elevator” which operates automatically so that Sabbath observers don’t have to press a button. Religious law requires that on Sabbath you abstain from electrical switches. The Sabbath Wars have the strangest frontlines.
Protests over arrest of the mother with the Munchausen syndrome were just the latest chapter in the ongoing battle. Stories of child neglect and abuse among the Haredi keep surfacing given the large size of their typical family. Between eight and 12 children are common. The women not only have to look after the kids but also work outside the home. Why? Because Haredi men don’t work and only study and they study only the Torah. Tradition dictates that males devote themselves wholly to religious studies to the exclusion of all other subjects, much the same way the madrassas are single-subject outfits -- the Quran.
The ultra-Orthodox live, look and act differently from the majority who are secular and law-abiding. Interestingly, while the Haredi happily take state subsidy to survive since they don’t work, they don’t recognize or believe in the state of Israel. They believe that man-made laws and the modern state of Israel are beneath the religious teachings of the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish religious traditions. They await the messiah instead.
He may or may not come but his men are busy fighting for the control of the soul of Israel for years while increasing their numbers and bargaining muscle. Amos Oz recognized the dangers back in 1982 when he asked whether secular Zionism was “a passing phase, a temporary secular interlude, a historical and political upheaval and that Halachic (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism would return to overwhelm Zionism and reabsorb it.” He said the “battle has already been won” in north Jerusalem where he grew up. “Zionism has been pushed out of here, as if it had never been.”