A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Parking Lot Wars

Jerusalem has been going through a particularly Israeli sort of poltical crisis for several weeks now, one that has received little attention outside Israel because it is one of those things that is particularly Israeli in nature. American supporters of Israel tend to sentimentalize and idealize the state and therefore do not like to focus on its internal divisions; too many Arab states simply demonize everything about Israel and therefore do not seek to report or analyze the internal stresses of Israeli society.

I'm calling this one the parking lot wars. Tourism is a major industry in Jerusalem — I hardly need to explain why, I think — and as anyone who knows the city knows, parking is an issue. Actually, several distinct issues. Back in the mid-1990s was the only time I ever rented a car in Israel (I'm not normally masochistic) and since it was rented in West Jerusalem I soon learned I couldn't park it in East Jerusalem lest someone set fire to it (this was between the Intifadas but it still wasn't good to have Israeli plates on the Arab side of town). I ended up parking at Mamilla park, well west of the old city. To make things easier on tourists, the Jerusalem government sought to open a parking garage just outside the walls of the old city on the Sabbath. There would be no charge; a non-Jew would run it; it would therefore not seem to violate the Sabbath. The haredi or "Ultra-Orthodox" protested. The Mayor shifted to a different approach: same deal, but a privately operated parking lot opposite the Jaffa Gate.

A radical haredi group known as Eda Haredit, or the Haredi Community, which is anti-Zionist and extreme in its opinions, has been forcefully protesting even the compromise approach. They've been protesting, mostly peacefully, and at other times rather more violently.

One of the fundamental ironies of Israeli society is the extreme dichotomies between the haredim and the generally secular society that is the majority, at least outside Jerusalem. I remember once being driven by a cab driver to East Jerusalem (the Arab section) on a Friday evening at dusk: he expressed alarm that he might have to go past Mea Shearim, the haredi quarter, where his car might be stoned for driving on the Sabbath, so I gave him directions for getting there through all-Arab neighborhoods. Admittedly that was just before the first Intifada, but the irony was clearly present: driving through an Arab neighborhood didn't scare him nearly as much as going past Mea Shearim on the Sabbath.

Most Western supporters of Israel are fairly unaware of the secular/religious divide and the contradictions it produces. In Jerusalem, and certainly in particular neighborhoods, there have been attacks on billboards and, in the past, even the burning of bus shelters which had ads showing women in bathing suits. Yet Israel also has plenty of topless beaches. Until you understand that dichotomy, you probably won't really understand Israel.

The parking lot wars are nother example.

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