Black-Hat Vigilantes

Article excerpt

Black-Hat Vigilantes

Ilene R. Prusher is a Jerusalem-based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Christian Science Monitor and the Financial Times.

"Shabbes! Shabbes!"

I looked up from my rollerblading glide up Ben-Zvi Boulevard to see who was yelling loud enough for me to hear him above The Cranberries playing on my Walkman. "Shabbes! Shabbes!"

High on the roof of an eight-story building, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) young man berated me to mend my errant ways. Glad to see he had no stones to throw with his words, I shook my head and pressed on along Ben-Zvi, which is more of a travel artery than a neighborhood street, and where light traffic flows steadily every Saturday. That may change, if the Shabbes Screamer and his thousands of allies have their way.

I love Shabbat in Jerusalem--the peace, the slow pace, the melodies that drift from home to home on a summer evening when the balcony doors are open. And after a harried work week, going out for a rollerblade is my rest, my way of enjoying the Sabbath. But my way of enjoying anything Jewish seems to be increasingly irrelevant in Jerusalem, where more than half of the schoolchildren are in ultra-Orthodox schools and their haredi parents have seized more real power than ever before in Israel's history. The coalition of hard-line nationalist and religious Right parties Benjamin Netanyahu pieced together upon his election victory in May not only gave the ultra-Orthodox much more control than is commensurate with their numbers, but emboldened zealots to impose their will freely on the majority.

Teaming up with fundamentalists who think they have a corner on absolute truth helped Netanyahu pave the way to a government that has taken a totally uncompromising approach with the Palestinians and expected them to respond acquiescently. The quick, violent unraveling of the peace process in September was hastened by Orthodox coalition partners who argued that complying with the agreement to redeploy Israeli troops from Hebron would leave the city's 500 Jewish settlers open to attack by the 120,000 Palestinians. More protection for the settlers was one of the controversial demands for changes in the Oslo accords forced on Netanyahu by his ultra-religious ministers.

To be fair, Netanyahu's government is hardly pioneering in its deal-making with the religious Right. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, bowed to the demands of the Orthodox in order to hold his coalition together. Viewing them as the guardians of the faith, he agreed to let them establish an Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs that still exists.

Close to half a century later, however, the men in black want more than just money for their schools and control over womb-to-tomb Jewish rituals. They want major roads to close on Shabbat, women to dress conservatively, and halakha (religious law) in general to prevail over civil liberties. It is only Netanyahu's luck that he has become the first-ever directly elected prime minister. A choice that some Israelis deemed wise at the time has proven to have factionalized, not consolidated, an already divisive political spectrum, giving an easier platform to the fringes.

In the face of a growing vigilantism of the haredim, Netanyahu has remained virtually silent. So have the bulk of religious Israelis, who do not spend their Shabbat throwing stones and plotting ways to compel all of Israel to comply with halakha. Many secularists and pluralists fear that the haredim want to turn Israel into a Jewish Iran.

On the face of it, comparison to Iran seems preposterous and ironic. Yet, there are already threads of prototheocracy emerging in Jerusalem. In the three months after Netanyahu wrested power from his Labor Party predecessor Shimon Peres, more than two dozen "immodestly dressed" Israeli women were attacked or had their car windows smashed by Orthodox men acting as self-appointed morality police like the mutawain that roam Saudi Arabia. …