Ultra-Orthodox Jews on a mission to save Jerusalem

His office is in a dark and musty basement, the shelves laden with religious and legal texts and boxes of files. Two white shirts are slung over hangers in the corner and Yoelish Krausz is sitting at his desk. Here he works as the operations officer of his deeply religious, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the Neturei Karta.

Posters on the walls attest to years of campaigning and his files are stuffed with the many thousands of letters, rulings and pamphlets issued in challenge to secularism in Israel.
In recent years Krausz (35) who is married with 10 children, has campaigned against Jerusalem’s gay community, roads dug near ancient Jewish graves, shops, restaurants, cinemas and even airlines which operate on the sabbath, and against buses that do not segregate male and female passengers.

“Jerusalem is becoming a lot less religious on a daily basis,” says Krausz. “We are really fighting for the truth ... Sometimes it seems they are trying to uproot our faith.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is a growing minority, around 13% of the total population, but it is particularly strong in Jerusalem and is popularly perceived as having an increasing influence throughout the country. In part this is down to an electoral system that can produce coalition governments in which the smaller religious parties have an influential role. Elsewhere, religious politicians have taken major positions on their own: Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupolianski, is the first ultra-Orthodox in the job.

The community is also very vocal and can quickly bring large numbers of young men on to the street. Protests against a gay pride march in Jerusalem this year and last sparked riots that left several police officers injured.

The Neturei Karta is one of several ultra-Orthodox communities, though perhaps the most radical because of its opposition to the existence of the state of Israel.

The community believes Judaism is different from Zionism and that Jews should not have a state on earth until the Messiah returns. It believes it is sinful to establish a Jewish state in Israel before that time.

The heartland

Its heartland is in Mea Shearim, where Krausz has his home and office. On the walls in the area are posters, many in English, stating: “Zionists are not Jews, only racists,” or “We pray to God for an immediate end to Zionism and their occupation.”

Krausz’s family came from Hungary but moved to London, where most of the family still live. His father moved on to Jerusalem, where his son was born. The boy, who studied in a yeshiva—religious school—has since left the city only occasionally, usually for protests, and has never left Israel. In protest at the existence of the Israeli state he does not hold an Israeli passport or identity card and does not buy state-subsidised bread. At home, dressed in his dark suit and broad-brimmed hat, he speaks Yiddish, not Hebrew, which he reserves for religious occasions.

“The point is not to enjoy the benefit of the state. Not to take social security or welfare, not to take jobs or education from the state,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to us who rules here. What is important is what happens after the redemption of the Messiah.”

This summer Krausz was one of the key figures behind ultra-Orthodox protests against the gay pride march in Jerusalem. Two years ago one of the marchers was stabbed and seriously injured by a religious Jewish protester. Last year the march was cancelled in the face of protests and had to be held in a sports stadium.

This year the march went ahead, but under tight security, and limited to a walk of a few hundred metres and a brief rally in a park.

In earlier years community members tried not to protest to avoid having to discuss issues of sexuality among their deeply conservative peers.

But now he says: “We cannot keep silent any longer.” He accepts there are gay men and women living quietly in the ultra-Orthodox community, but says he regards their sexuality as an “illness”. “We can take care of it,” he says. “There is medication. It can be treated.”

Of his opposition to the march, he says: “If we accept the march today, tomorrow they will do worse things.”

Organisers of the march, who are vilified in public by the ultra-Orthodox, requently suffer harassment and hire private security guards in the runup to the event. They regard the march as a fundamental test of democratic freedoms.

“We are Jerusalemites and we are expressing our very, very basic civil rights,” Noa Sattath, head of the Jerusalem Open House and organiser of the march, said before this year’s event. Her group has a number of gay men and women from the ultra-Orthodox community. “They come here, they call us on the phone. There is always a big surge of activity after the march,” she says. “But it is not easy for them at all.”

Opposition to the gay march is one of many campaigns for the ultra-Orthodox. The community threatened a financially painful boycott of the national airline El Al last year, when a handful of planes flew on the sabbath to help passengers who had been stranded by a labour dispute. Eventually the airline, which suffered losses as a result of the dispute, agreed to take on an ultra-Orthodox “adviser”, who would have a say on sabbath flights.

Harry Potter

There were even protests last month when some bookshops opened overnight on the sabbath for the first sales of the latest Harry Potter book. A growing number of buses in Jerusalem districts are segregating men and women, in deference to the demands of religious Jews, and businesses in the city which try to open on the sabbath are met with high-profile complaints and demonstrations. Most ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods are fenced off on Saturdays to keep drivers away.

Yet the clash between Israel’s secular and religious Jews is not new. In the years after the creation of the state in 1948, a Constitution was never drawn up, in part because of the difficulty in agreeing a relationship between religion and state. The community has made headlines in recent months, both with the gay pride march and a major debate on the renewal of a law exempting young members of the ultra-Orthodox community from national service. But some academics argue the community is not growing more influential, but is simply always active.

“It is very popular to say that the religious-secular conflict is growing and is the most serious conflict in society. I say a lot of this is ritualised,” says Ira Sharkansky, emeritus professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Often the community simply hopes to raise new contributions from donors abroad, he says. “They always manage to put themselves on the agenda.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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