Jerusalem secular Mayor Nir Barkat has barely gotten into the routine of presiding over Israel’s capital and second largest city. And now he has had at least two death threats against him via email messages. Being secular, and interested in promoting his city’s tourism business, a big money maker for the country’s most historical and holiest city to three major religions, Bareket’s attempts to provide weekend visitors to the Old City with a parking lot has been met with violent objection by the city’s Haredi or Ultra Orthodox Jewish community.
The parking lot that has been the subject of all this controversy is located just outside the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City and underneath a brand new open air shopping mall that also contains many Jerusalem Municipality offices. The lot, which is also close to several luxury hotels, including the King David Hotel and David Citadel Hotel, is actually not located near the Haredi strongholds such as Meah Shearim. Religious Jews wishing to enter the Old City to pray at the Kotel or Western Wall on the Sabbath don’t even go near this lot for the most part; and yet the lot being open on the Jewish Sabbath has stirred up a boiling cauldron of controversy, which has resulted in rioting that caused fires to be set in garbage dumpsters and thousands of Haredi and other religious protestors pitting themselves against police, who had to use water cannon as a last resort , and arrested scores of religious protestors.
Non religious protestors – to the demand to close the parking lot have also been active, including Knesset members like Labor Party member Ofer Pines, who was very upset by the actions of the religious community who, in Pine’s opinion, “want to turn Israel’s capital into another Teheran”.
The parking lot is meant to be beneficial not only to non-religious Jews, but also to many Christian and other visitors who come to Jerusalem on the weekend, particularly to visit the Old City, as well as shop in the large Souk open air market. Under a long standing agreement established by previous city fathers, including long time mayor Teddy Kolleck, the Jerusalem Municipality abided by the wishes of the religious community, and as a result, virtually everything in the western part of the city, with the exception of a few pubs and other similar establishments are closed on Shabbat. The Old City and most of East Jerusalem, where most of the city’s Arab community lives, is open for business, with the exception of places like the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. Where all this will finally end is still anybody’s guess, but it’s obvious that the Jerusalem Municipality not yet ready to turn the city over to the ultra-orthodox religious community.
Police are now trying to determine who sent the death threats against Mayor Baraket, and are taking the threats seriously, in light of what happened to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in November, 1995, in Tel Aviv by a religious fanatic, Yigal Amir. The Municipality, appear to be sticking by their decision to let the parking lot remain open, and that all efforts will be made to ensure the security of all people wanting to use the parking lot during Shabbat.