Bar Ilan street protests resume after court rules against closure

JERUSALEM, April 20 (JTA) — After an eight-month lull, fervently Orthodox demonstrators have resumed large-scale protests aimed at closing Jerusalem’s Bar Ilan Street to Sabbath traffic. The weekend protests came in the wake of a High Court ruling last week to keep the street open on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays until Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy worked out a compromise between religious and secular interests. Bar Ilan Street, which cuts through religious neighborhoods, is also a main artery linking outlying city neighborhoods to the center of Jerusalem. The court decision was handed down after Levy rejected earlier compromise proposals, including one that called for the street to be closed during prayer times, and another road, currently closed, to be opened to traffic. Fervently Orthodox activists had suspended their demonstrations while they awaited the court’s ruling. Last summer, Bar Ilan Street was the site of repeated violent clashes between fervently Orthodox demonstrators and police. At the time, secular groups held protests of their own, often calling on their followers to drive along the street on the Sabbath. The street has become the flashpoint for an ongoing debate between secular Israelis, who want to be free of religious constraints when it comes to setting public policy, and the fervently Orthodox, who view the presence of Sabbath traffic on the street as a violation of religious law. In Saturday’s protests, which police said were less intense than expected, thousands of fervently Orthodox demonstrators clashed with large numbers of police, who pushed the protesters back to prevent them from blocking the street. Some 20 demonstrators were detained, and about 10 police officers were injured in scuffles. Jerusalem police chief Yair Yitzhaki said the police had achieved their goal of ensuring that the road remained open to traffic. The police had stationed water cannons near the site of the demonstrations, but they did not use them. The head of the secularist Meretz faction, Arnan Yekutieli, said that in light of Saturday’s demonstrations, secular activists planned to resume their protests as well. Yekutieli charged that the fervently Orthodox protests had proved that the religious community did not intend to honor the High Court ruling.

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