Jerusalem — On the night we arrived in Israel, my wife and I went for a stroll to see the newly renovated train station complex in the center of town.
As we walked through the gates and saw the large, enthusiastic crowds, we realized we were entering not only a beautiful addition to the cultural life of the city but a tangible example of the local government’s efforts to keep Jerusalem relevant and appealing to non-Orthodox Israelis and tourists.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long for a visitor in this country to sense that tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the population is at a critically high point. Even the grand opening of First Station, as the restored train station museum and outdoor mall is known — sure to become a popular cultural, shopping and entertainment space — is a source of religious conflict and deeply emotional and political power struggle for the future path and identity of the Zionist enterprise.
Nir Barkat, the popular mayor, has sought to stem the haredization of Jerusalem during his first term, determined to keep or attract young secular professionals — an economic and social priority. A variety of new programs featuring music, theater and the arts have given the city a contemporary feel of excitement, and the opening of First Station is a major achievement. Since the 19th-century station closed in 1998, its abandoned structure had become an eyesore and nighttime hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes. Now it promises to be an attractive magnet for locals as well as tourists.
There had been complaints that some of First Station’s open-air stalls featuring arts, crafts and jewelry — there are no permanent stores — as well as food vendors and restaurants would be open on Shabbat. (In the end, the owners will determine the hours, and there is kosher food available.)
One of the jewelry craftsmen told us, unsolicited, that Barkat is doing a good job of making Jerusalem a more livable city. He noted that some of his friends are moving here from Tel Aviv — it used to be the other way around — attracted by more affordable housing and the sense that Jerusalem is no longer just for the Orthodox.
While Israel in the international media is all about renewed efforts to jumpstart the peace talks and deep concern about a Syrian civil war that is spinning more deeply out of control, much of the talk among Israelis this summer of discontent is focused on the domestic front. There is close scrutiny of the current government, and specifically on the two men most responsible for its current makeup. They are Yair Lapid, who went, seemingly overnight, from popular journalist and television personality to highly criticized finance minister at a time of economic austerity. And Naftali Bennett, the new minister of religion whose successful campaign image as a unifier of Orthodox and secular Israelis has given way to a sense that he is being held hostage politically by the most fundamentalist segment of his HaBayit HaYehudi party’s constituency.
The society’s concerns about the wide economic gap between the haves and have-nots as well as frustration over haredi young men absolved from military service and subsidized for Torah study have combined to focus national attention on proposed legislation that would make national service compulsory for large numbers of haredim, as well as Arabs.
This has been attempted before, most recently when the left-of-center Kadima party joined the last government. But the attempt to widen the draft failed, and Kadima left the unity coalition.
A key phrase of the election campaign early this year was “sharing the burden,” a seemingly benign reference to having the haredim serve in the army. But with the haredi parties shut out of the coalition, they have been particularly vociferous in their resistance to calls for them to join the army — they insist they are serving society through prayer and Torah study — and for cutbacks in government subsidies for their large families.
Diaspora Jews have seen this anger played out over recent haredi protests against Women of the Wall, the group seeking equal access to the Kotel for their monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service. But the deeper and more elemental battle about religion here is over rights for women in issues of marriage and divorce, and the call for more liberal conversion standards to allow many of the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking citizens to become Jews.
These issues aren’t going away, but on the night of our visit to First Station, at least, we were caught up in the enthusiasm of the relaxed and happy crowd exploring the new venue, so different from the atmospherics in Jerusalem a decade ago when suicide bombers ruled.
What a difference the security fence has made in people’s lives. Tomorrow we will read again of stalled peace talks, imminent war in the north and religious wars at home. But this evening is all about a clear sky and soft breeze, upbeat music filling the air, and a chance to mingle with strangers who feel like relatives in the contemporary and holy city of Jerusalem.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)