The Broader Picture: Road rage

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS no room for doubt here. The Hassidic men have absolute belief in their right to stand on the hill and protest. The horseman is following orders, his face impassive, eyes fixed on a point in the distance. The law says the demonstration must be stopped, so policeman and beast cut through the black line. In the foreground to the left, a man is thrown to the ground before the flashing hooves; dead centre, his hat spins in the dust.

We have seen images before of Jewish men and women cowed before uniformed authority. The story may not be so simple, though: it seldom is in modern Jerusalem. Doubt may be a rare commodity in the city; passionate and confused dispute is not.

The picture was taken by an Israeli, Menahem Kahana, and recently won a prize at the International Photojournalism Festival in Angers, France. The incident took place in the hills to the north of Jerusalem, where a construction team was building a road to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. When the excavations uncovered a burial cave containing the remains of a family, the Israeli Antiquities Authority was called, and its archaeologists identified the site as dating from the 4th or 5th century CE (Common Era, the exactly concurrent Israeli equivalent of AD). The Authority proposed to transfer the bodies to another burial ground.

Hassidic Jews believe that the bones of a dead person must remain intact and that if the body is touched or moved it may be desecrated, with disastrous consequences for the soul. For several weeks last summer, about 100 young Hassidic men would gather near the cave, demanding that the bodies be left alone or moved only in accordance with the strictest religious law.

Menahem Kahana said that although the protesters disrupted the archaeological and building work, they were never violent: "They did not throw stones - they were casting prayer on the place." He watched as Israeli police officers riding on horseback and wearing riot helmets charged the protesters, arresting those who had tried to break through a security cordon to the cave. The protest was ended after prominent Hassidic teachers intervened under pressure from ultra-Orthodox politicians close to the Israeli government. Belatedly, the Antiquities Authority found archaeological evidence that suggested the cave contained no Jewish remains: it was a Gentile burial site.