This past Friday night, I had just finished dinner with some good friends from out of town, and was walking them home to their hotel down the street from my apartment on Agrippas Street. I had just gotten my friend’s lovely infant to stop crying, and was gently humming to her, as we approached the hotel.
And then I heard a different kind of hum. More of a drone, I guess you’d call it. And as I got a drop closer, I knew exactly what it was: the sound of religious coercion.
“Shabbes… Shabbes… Shabbes…”
I looked down the alley to my left, and saw a group of about 10 to 15 Haredi men, chanting as they stood in front of a local Ethiopian restaurant. And I remembered that this was not in fact the first time I had seen this group. Exactly a year ago, I also saw them, in front of a different restaurant on Betzalel Street.
For the record, I am a Shabbat-observer, and yet, I want things open on Shabbat in this city. I want everyone who wants to live here, including those who do not observe the Shabbat, to feel comfortable here. And most of all, I do not want a small minority of extremists to dictate to the rest of the city how they should live.
So I took a deep breath, handed my friend’s infant over, and said, “Excuse me, I have to go over.” My friends thought I was crazy, and asked what I was doing. I simply replied that I couldn’t let this go on. And I headed straight into the alley.
When I arrived, two secular residents (at least they appeared that way, though looks mean very little in terms of this) were standing there with their dogs, looking upset but powerless. But even odder was that the restaurant in question was actually closed!
Only today, when I saw a news article on the matter, did I learn that this extremist group had gone to a new tactic. They showed up at the restaurant minutes before Shabbat began, along with police officers who they had summoned to the scene, and had the cops shut the place down. In the news story, it says the police claimed it is illegal for any business to be open on Shabbat in Jerusalem, but that the municipality claims that this is absolutely false, that the police action was unwarranted, and was “human error.”
Regardless, I knew none of this when I saw the demonstration. I just saw religious coercion. So I opened my mouth, and starting chanting back: “Hillul Hashem! Sinat Hinam! (Desecration of God! Baseless Hatred!)” Because that is what I see in these protests. I see hatred of other Jews on the faces of these extremists. I believe that harassing patrons and business owners on Shabbat, trying to shut businesses down forcibly, in no way helps our city nor our religion. I believe that such actions are not just illegal, but are also a perversion, degradation, and debasement of our religion. Any Jew who is at a restaurant on Shabbat, or even who lives next to one and sees this will not be “brought closer” to Judaism by a protest like this. And they likely will be driven further from it. Feel free to disagree, but that’s what I see. And I called it out.
Amazingly, it worked. Me, a single person chanting what I saw, and this group of protesters just shuffled away. I have little doubt that the reason they did so was neither because I was so intimidating nor because (to my dismay) I was particularly convincing. I’m sure they just moved on knowing there was another establishment at which they could harass patrons without some crazy guy yelling back at them.
When I returned to the neighbors and their dogs, they thanked me with what seemed to be true relief and gratitude. Other apparently Shabbat-observant passerbys (seemingly of the “yeshivish/Haredi-light” variety, though again, looks mean little here) seemed equally appreciative, saying, “Who told them to come here from Meah Shearim?” And even more surprisingly, some people a number of stories up had been watching the whole thing out their apartment window, and recognized me. They called me by name and yelled their thanks and congratulations down to me. I still don’t know who they were, as I couldn’t recognize them (feel free to let me know if it was you), but I appreciated their support and their call of “Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God)!” In and around that little alley were residents of various religious stripes, and yet none of us supported this extremist protest.
So my first message in this post is, if you believe what they are doing is wrong, stand up and say something. If more people counter-protest, they may not stop, but they will at least have a harder time coercing others. And more importantly, those who are the victims of this harassment will know they are not alone, and have support.
But the story is still not over. A bit later, I heard that the police had shown up, so I went to look for them and found them, offering to tell them what I saw. They were very receptive. I told them all I saw and did, and they asked me some questions. Had I seen this before (yes, but at a different location), did I live nearby, etc. They asked me if I took any pictures, and I had to smile as I explained that I couldn’t, as I am shomer Shabbat. Maybe they didn’t see the kippah on my head, or maybe they just didn’t want to judge me based on that (lots of kippah-wearers might still take photos or video on Shabbat). But when I thanked them sincerely for coming, they said, “It’s our job.”
Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t always mean a lot. Had I known then what I know now, I would have brought up the police who “mistakenly” shut the restaurant down earlier in the evening. But there have also been other news stories of late about continual Shabbat harassment of the bar/restaurant Barood, in Feingold Courtyard off of Yaffo (Jaffa). The biggest complaint is that when these protests have taken place, there have been police standing alongside, but have done nothing to stop the protests! If anything, they appear to be there to protect the extremists, should the need arise.
(Illustrative: A different protest earlier this year, against army enlistment.)
Which brings me to my second point. We are in election season, and there are many people running for mayor, to lead this great city of ours. Many of them claim that they believe in “pluralism” and in protecting the rights of all sectors of society here. Even those who don’t put that forward as a priority typically recognize that this city cannot survive economically if more and more secular people leave Jerusalem.
So if you care about this issue, as much as I do, I suggest you pose a question directly to any candidate you have the opportunity to meet, at a parlor meeting, campaign event or elsewhere. “Will you crack down on the coercive efforts of this extremist group against restaurants that are open on Shabbat?” In more detail, “Will you instruct the police to do their job and protect these businesses?”
To be clear, these extremists have a right to their opinion and to free speech. But free speech has limits, and harassing business and patrons is illegal. And I want my next mayor to say unequivocally that he or she will put a stop to this before it goes further.
And if any of the candidates is reading this right now, I encourage you to make your reply public. Thanks.