Jerusalem’s Culture War, In Close-up

Jerusalem’s Culture War, In Close-up

Latest battle is over bid to open multiplex on Shabbat; case pits pluralism vs. city’s unique character.

Jerusalem — The latest skirmish in Jerusalem’s ongoing culture war — in effect, a battle over the soul of the city — is being waged over the newest movie theater complex here.

Situated across the street from the Supreme Court, and not far from a new luxury housing development, the eight-story Cinema City, which opened in late February, boasts 19 screens, an indoor mall with 54 stores, restaurants and cafés, many activities for children and some 2,000 parking spaces.

Those who want the complex open on Shabbat say the issue is about freedom of religion; those against the move fear not only for the sanctity of the Sabbath, but also for the unique atmosphere that makes Shabbat in Jerusalem such a special experience.

Cinema City’s owners initially agreed to keep it closed on Shabbat — a precondition of the Finance Ministry, which owns the land — but, with the backing of the Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim (Wake Up Jerusalem) movement, they petitioned the High Court to hear the case for keeping it open.

The petitioners noted that some of the city’s other movie houses and entertainment venues are open on Shabbat, and argued that the character of the neighborhood, and not who owns the land, should be the determining factor.

Last month, the High Court instructed the owners, the municipality and the Finance Ministry, which is now headed by Yair Lapid, an advocate for secular rights, to sit down and try to find a solution acceptable to all sides.

While battles over Shabbat openings have been going on for years, non-haredi Jerusalem residents feel something has changed for the better of late. Relative peace has tourists and investors flocking to the city, and the fact that Jerusalem has a secular mayor who has worked hard to make Jerusalem a more vibrant, pluralistic city has contributed to the sense that Jerusalem is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. With Lapid at the helm, the Finance Ministry is no longer opposed to Cinema City being open on Shabbat, but countervailing forces are also at play.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria, a Modern Orthodox city councilwoman who supports Shabbat openings for Jerusalem’s cultural venues but not businesses or offices, said the council will have the final say, assuming an agreement can be worked out. But given that the majority of City Council members are Orthodox or haredi, Azaria said, the owners will face an uphill battle.

Uri Regev, president of Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, an NGO, said the Cinema City debate “is part of a larger issue” that resonates well beyond Jerusalem.

“It’s a symbolic battle over the public domain and who owns it,” he said. “There are other movie theaters that are open on Shabbat, but they were built on private land. The haredim say this would change the religious status quo, while others say the status quo is religious coercion.”

Regev insisted he is not trying to change Jerusalem’s unique Shabbat character, which is renowned for its tranquility and family-centered activities. Most Jerusalemites credit the atmosphere to the fact that Saturday is a nearly universal day off, enabling everyone from government officials to bus drivers, observant or not, to take the day off.

“I am no less committed to the uniqueness of Jerusalem as a spiritual center” than Orthodox Jews are, said Regev, who is a Reform rabbi. “I made aliyah from Tel Aviv for these very reasons. I moved here to attend rabbinical school 40 years ago and stayed.”

But many non-Orthodox Jews have left the city, he noted, and not just because the price of Jerusalem housing is sky high.

“The question is, how do we reconcile the spiritual essence of Jerusalem with the fact that it is a modern, pluralistic city with many residents, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, seeking to enjoy Shabbat in keeping with their own lifestyle?” Regev asked.

Azaria believes the municipality has already done quite a bit during the past several years to make Shabbat a more vibrant time for non-haredim.

“It’s an issue we’ve been dealing with very successfully. We’ve opened community centers on Shabbat, a lot of museums; many more arts organizations are open than they were in the past. There is the new Tachana,” the train station complex where, this past Shabbat, hundreds of people dined, children frolicked and women learned Spanish dancing under a large tent.

Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a sociology professor at the Hebrew University, agrees that Jerusalem is “culturally rich,” if somewhat less so on Shabbat, but that without public transportation on Shabbat, non-Orthodox Jews “feel suffocated.”

“They deserve to enjoy their leisure time the way they wish, especially on weekends, but we have no public transportation in [predominantly Jewish] West Jerusalem,” she noted. Vinitzky-Seroussi called it “totally unfair that people without cars cannot go to the beach or visit their family or friends. This especially affects new immigrants, migrant workers, young people, the elderly. All of them are the least powerful groups in society.”

Unless Jerusalem finds a way to make the city attractive to the thousands of students who come to the city to study every year, Vinitzky-Seroussi added, they won’t feel compelled to stay after they graduate.

Regev would like to see the municipality designate certain geographic areas where Shabbat openings would be allowed. “The distinction should not be ownership but whether the geographic area and the character of the predominant population will be negatively affected by Shabbat openings.”

Although he is in favor of Cinema City being open on Shabbat, Elan Ezrachi, chairman of the Ginot Ha’ir community council, which represents nine religiously mixed Jerusalem neighborhoods, said it would be a mistake to attribute Jerusalem’s Shabbat closure laws solely to haredi pressure.

When businesses are open on Shabbat “you’re also employing people. How do they get to their workplaces? How do they get paid?”

Ezrachi said the city needs to find a balance between the needs of different population groups.

“Once you make decisions you run the risk of being coercive and forcing people to do things against their conscience, or doing things against their free will,” he said, referring both to those who want to work or see a movie on Shabbat, and those who believe Shabbat will be ruined in the process.

At Cinema City, a loud, rather kitschy place with faux Roman statues flanking a large indoor fountain, Daniel Bar, a worker at a patisserie in the mall, said he would not mind working on Shabbat but enjoys having it off.

“The truth is, any restaurant with a kashrut certificate, like ours, won’t be able to open on Shabbat anyway, and the chain stores like Castro won’t dare open on Shabbat for fear of being boycotted by the haredi public.”

Iris and Chen, secular parents of two children, declined to give their last names but offered that they want the complex to be open on Shabbat “because we need things to do with the kids in Jerusalem. We usually go away but it would be nice to have more things to do close to home.”

While a religious mother and father with seven young children in tow said they understand the frustration of secular Israelis, “Shabbat is holy,” the father of the family said. “Shabbat is a gift, and we, the Jewish state, must respect it.”

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