Jerusalem's population is 764,000. Groups with high political salience are 269,000 Arabs (35 percent), and an estimated 155,000 ultra-Orthodox.
The Arabs have great prominence among overseas watchers of Jerusalem, but opt out of local politics by boycotting municipal elections. Almost none of them accepted Israeli citizenship when it was offered after 1967, and the vast majority refuse to exercise their rights, as residents, to vote in local elections. The ultra-Orthodox vote largely as their rabbis instruct, and turn out at levels exceeding 80 percent in local elections. Insofar as the turnout of other Jews seldom reaches 30 percent in local elections, the ultra-Orthodox can make their 30 percent of the city's Jewish population into a major force. They elected one of their own as mayor in 2003. Their rabbis split in 2008 and lost the office to a secular Jew.
Overseas media focus on Jerusalem as the meeting point of three faiths, and as a flash point in the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Incidents sure to gain prominence are those concerned with the Old City and especially the Temple Mount (or Nobel Sanctuary/Haram esh Sharif) and Western Wall, the movement of Jews into Arab neighborhoods, and Arab claims that their neighborhoods are denied a fair share of municipal resources.
Despite their international prominence, Jewish-Arab tensions do not appear at the top of the local agenda. Staying out of politics has its impact. In democratic settings, groups get benefits by voting. If they do not vote, they do not get. Jews avoid Arab neighborhoods without thinking much about it. The contacts with Arabs in professional and managerial settings, the mixture of Arabs and Jews among university students, and the limited number of Arab residents in Jewish neighborhoods generally occurs without incident. Things may heat up during periods of violence, but the peak of the most recent intifada passed five years ago. Arab friends stayed away from the university gym during last year's invasion of Gaza, but they returned to share space and banter.
Local tensions involving ultra-Orthodox Jews are more prominent and persistent. Distinctive dress assures their notice. They are more aggressive and more "in our face" in making their demands. Demonstrations are likely to be in places that matter to other Jews. Although serious analysis may not support the stereotype, it is widely claimed that the ultra-Orthodox use their voting power to gain an undue share of resources. Topics of complaint include the per-child payments to large families, payments to adult men who avoid work for study in religious academies, small classes and transportation for ultra-Orthodox primary schools, the almost universal avoidance by the ultra-Orthodox of military service, the spread of ultra-Orthodox families into neighborhoods that had been secular, then the demands of the ultra-Orthodox to close roads on the Sabbath and religious holidays, campaigns against secular newspapers, the noise of television, non-kosher food, and "immodest" clothing.
Ultra-Orthodox activities come in waves, sparked by an individual rabbi, politician, or other figure who succeeds in making an issue out of something that generally passes unnoticed. The early evening is the time to block major streets, burn trash containers, and tussle with the police. Demonstrations can come when there is a demand for an autopsy in the case of a suspicious death, the police intervene in a family accused of child abuse, an advertising poster features a woman in short sleeves, a shop too close to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood sells pork, or a parking garage opens on the Sabbath. The ultra-Orthodox Knesset Member with responsibility for the Health Ministry made a national case out of the plan to construct a new emergency room at the hospital in Ashkelon. On account of ancient graves he felt could be Jewish, he ordered the facility to be built 300 meters from the hospital.
The ultra-Orthodox can make life difficult, but they do not dominate. Their campaigns generally get attention for several days, or weekends in the case of a Sabbath issue. They lost the struggle about the parking garage that opened on the Sabbath for tourists who visit the Old City, and the struggle over the emergency room at the Ashkelon hospital. A court imposed considerable restrictions on an ultra-Orthodox mother convicted of child abuse.
It is too early to guess the outcome of the most recent event. The Supreme Court dithered for 10 years before it ruled in favor of a case brought by former member of the Jerusalem City Council (who has since died) and a single mother (who has since received her Masters degree). They sued in behalf of university students denied the financial payments made to adult males who study in ultra-Orthodox religious academies. The Court agreed that the allocations violated principles of equality found in "basic law". Basic laws are labeled as such, and enjoy constitutional status in this country without a formal constitution. The lack of a constitution, and the device of basic laws that represent a constitution in everything but name owes a good deal to the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox. They oppose anything that might claim higher status than Torah.
The Court has not ordered the immediate halt to the payments received by adult students in ultra-Orthodox academies, but indicated that they cannot continue beyond the present budget without the enactment of a basic law.
Ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members are flexing their muscles. We will see if they can leverage their 15 Members of Knesset into an action that will attract more attention than conventional legislation. The decision may have come too late for an immediate bonfire of trash containers, but there is always another evening.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem