Photo Credit: Liba Farkash/ Flash 90
Shuk Machane Yehuda at Night

Four leading candidates for the Jerusalem mayoralty rejected a demand Monday by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to close the city’s Mahane Yehuda open air market at night, apparently putting an end to a short-lived notion that city officials would move to curtail the neighborhood’s pulsing nightlife.

Litzman, a member of the Gur hassidic court and a powerful national politician, said Sunday that the city’s large ultra-Orthodox population would not support any candidate for mayor that refused to close bars and limit noise levels in the neighborhood after dark. Responding to secular criticism, Litzman defended the ultimatum saying he had received requests by secular and Orthodox residents of the area looking for quiet during the evening and nighttime hours.


Notably, however, Litzman’s haredi Knesset colleagues Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) failed to back the demand. In addition, all the leading candidates to replace Jerusalem’s outgoing Mayor Nir Barkat on October 30 – Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Moshe Leon, who lost the 2013 city election to Nir Barkat, secularist Ofer Berkowitz, the head of the city council’s Hitorerut (Awakening) faction, and Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser to Barkat – said the market’s bars would remain open after hours.

“Mahane Yehuda is not going to close,” said Elkin. “It is an important center for nightlife in Jerusalem and I don’t think anyone could move to close it. It doesn’t have to be a political issue.”

As of this writing, Litzman’s office had not responded to the lack of haredi support for the ultimatum and the apparently solid wall of opposition from non-haredi political circles. If the minister concedes defeat on the issue, however, it would be the second set back for haredi demands to curtail secular entertainment options in the capital in as many weeks: Last week, the District Planning and Building Committee nixed an initiative by ultra-Orthodox members of the Jerusalem City Council to close the First Station, the city’s 19th century train station that now serves as a commercial and entertainment hub during the week and on Shabbat, and which features kosher and non-kosher restaurants.

The current mix-up is not the first in recent months between Haredi and non-Haredi factions at the site, universally known in the city simply as The Shuk (Hebrew for “the market). In April, the Chotam organization, associated with a haredi wing of religious Zionism, called on followers to boycott the shuk’s Pasta Pasta restaurant because a private rabbinic organisation, rather than the chief rabbinate, provides the establishment with kashrut supervision. Thousands of secular and modern Orthodox groups responded to the call by visiting the restaurant en masse. And as Tazpit Press Service reported last month, Pasta Basta represents a small, but growing, trend towards private kashrut oversight.

The back-to-back losses raises questions about possible changes to the political map in the capital: Whereas in the past ultra-Orthodox opposition has forced the closure on Shabbat of non-Haredi entertainment venues such as the Cinema City movie and restaurant complex, private parking lots and more, this time the loud, immediate pushback by non-haredi activists and politicians scuttled the move before it had a chance to get off the ground.

Significantly, too, is the fact that voices opposing Litzman’s demand included parts of the modern Orthodox community – Elkin and Leon both wear that community’s signature knitted kipa.

All of which creates a potentially explosive situation for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Elkin’s Likud Party but also a close political ally of Litzman. The premier has yet to throw his support behind any candidate, but members of the Likud Central Committee are certain to press Netanyahu to support Elkin following the latter’s entry into the race last week.

Ultimately, however, the outcome of the race may prove to be less important than the campaign leading up to it. Or, in other words, the true significance of Jerusalem politics in 2018 could lie in whether or not the city’s non-haredi majority manages to break the long-standing veto over cultural events in the city.

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Andrew Friedman is a senior editor at Tazpit News Service (TPS), and former correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine.