Out of Israel: Intimidated by the Day of Atonement

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The Independent Online
JERUSALEM - For several months now I have driven a car through the West Bank villages unintimidated by the threat of Palestinian stone-throwers. Yesterday, however, I dared not drive in West Jerusalem for fear of Jewish stone-throwing.

'You can't possibly drive. They'll stone you. Nobody drives on Yom Kippur,' is the standard warning given to an uninitiated foreigner.

At mid-morning yesterday the traffic-lights at the bottom of King David Street were flashing as small solemn groups, often clad in white, made their way on foot to synagogues and children played on bicycles on the deserted tarmac. In the synagogues the Jewish prayers were well under way. A small group of Christians was defiantly singing: 'Hallelujah, Christ in Heaven' from a grassy bank overlooking the Old City Walls (which echoed curiously to the muezzin calling Palestinians to prayer in the Muslim quarter.)

But the roads were still. Shops were closed and nobody was working. Those not on their way to prayer could be assumed to be at home, fasting in private. The outward confirmity to the rules of Yom Kippur, however, belies the real division the Holy Day exposes in Israeli society.

For religious Jews all over the world Yom Kippur is the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar: the Day of Atonement, when they must fast and pray for forgiveness until the sounding of the shofar - the ritual trumpet - signals the closing of the gates of repentance. The rules of the Sabbath - no work, no contact with mechanical objects - are doubly enforced. At sundown last night the Western Wall was obscured by lines of white prayer-shawls, and chanting grew louder until the shofar sounded. In Rehov Mea Shearim, Yiddish-speaking children, in their pin-striped breeches and white stockings, and white yamulkas, played in the dusty streets; pregnant mothers pushed their prams, and men filled the synagogues. Posters on the walls told everyone where to meet to confess their sins.

It is these communities that police Jerusalem on Yom Kippur and ensure that nobody dares to drive their car. But they are a minority.

The majority of Israelis are secular: some say as few as 30 per cent of the population would describe themselves as religious. For these people Yom Kippur is often nothing but a drag.

Behind many of the closed doors in Jerusalem yesterday Israelis were just waiting for it all to be over. 'For many of us it just brings sadness - it reminds us of our children or friends' children who died in the Yom Kippur war,' said one secular Jewish woman. Another problem is that Yom Kippur is a religious holiday - it is not a Zionist celebration in which the secular can partake, nor is it a family holiday. There is no television, so the video stores sell out well in advance. 'We will close the shutters and sit it out with a bottle of wine,' said a non-religious Jewish neighbour.

The American Colony Hotel, in a stylish enclave in Arab East Jerusalem, was doing special deals yesterday for evacuees from the Jewish side - of which many Western journalists take advantage. The only story the journalists were missing was the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike, which may have been timed to reach its climax with the start of the Jewish fast.

Akiva Eldar, a secular Jew and a leading Israeli journalist, says celebrating Yom Kippur is much less problematic for secular Jews abroad, who need a reason to come together once a year and state their Jewishness.

'Once a year, for one day a year, for 24 hours, the diaspora Jews pay their dues for not living in Israel. It is hypocritical. They stick together in the synagogues, sweating it out in order to feel they share the religious ideas. And then, the next day, they go straight back to eating pork.'

In Israel, he says, many secular Jews also go along with some aspects of Yom Kippur because they remember their more religious parents or because they think of the Arabs and need some cause to justify their existence in Israel. Also, he adds: 'We are still full of anxieties of what God will do to us. We feel guilty if we are not being Jewish enough.' Mr Eldar, himself, however, went to Spain for Yom Kippur.