Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the conservative Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem take part in a demonstration July 16 against the woman's arrest and the opening of a parking lot on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the conservative Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem take part in a demonstration July 16 against the woman's arrest and the opening of a parking lot on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
In Jerusalem, authorities are hoping that a compromise in a case involving an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman suspected of child abuse will lower tensions between the city and ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. Several days of protests have left dozens of police injured and scores of protesters in custody.
The recent protests by Jerusalem's active ultra-Orthodox community began last week, when ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrated against the city's decision to open a parking lot on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Israeli commentators say that anger appeared to multiply when police arrested an ultra-Orthodox woman on suspicion of systematically starving her 3-year-old son.
A photograph of the emaciated boy, said to weigh just 15 pounds, shocked many Israelis. But it was the mother's arrest that enraged ultra-Orthodox protesters. The woman belongs to a sect that rejects any interference in domestic matters. Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators refused to believe that the woman was harming her child, claiming the hospital was "experimenting" on the boy, a charge the hospital rejected.
The protesters blocked traffic and clashed violently with police night after night this week. Demonstrators in traditional dress threw stones, burned trash, destroyed street lights and disrupted traffic, while police used horse-mounted patrols and water cannon to try to disperse them.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says police brought in reinforcements to deal with the increasingly violent protests. Rosenfeld says one recent night of protests resulted in injuries to 18 police officers — eight of whom required medical treatment.
"We made over 50 arrests after police were confronted and attacked by ultra-religious representatives," Rosenfeld says.
A potential turning point in the case occurred Friday. Officials say that at a court hearing, the woman — who has not been identified — agreed to undergo psychiatric examination and to not see her children temporarily. The court agreed to release her to house arrest after a prominent rabbi paid more than $100,000 in bail.
Rosenfeld says discussions between the police and ultra-Orthodox leaders have been going on since the riots began and he is hopeful that Friday's development will allow cooler heads to prevail, both in the child abuse case and the parking lot issue.
"But once again, there are extremists in that community on both issues, not just the issue of the woman and her son but the issue of a car park. We're hoping that now that the first issue seems to be resolved, we're hoping that things will be calm relatively in Jerusalem over this coming Sabbath," he says.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known collectively as the Haredim to secular Israelis. But there are many different branches of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Several oppose the Zionist movement, and at least one sect actively embraces Palestinian groups: Members of the tiny Neturei Karta sect reportedly visited with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip Thursday.
The replacement of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor with secular businessman Nir Barkat, who won election last fall, hasn't helped relations between the municipality and ultra-Orthodox residents. On the other hand, the election of Barkat was a relief to secular Jerusalemites, who have long voiced dismay at the steadily growing religious presence in the city.