"In Jerusalem, they prepared to conclude a peaceful Shabbos on Bar Ilan, and then the Meretz members from Tel Aviv arrived" read Sunday’s headline in Ha’aretz. Reporter Yonatan Liss quotes a senior police commander as sharply critical of the Meretz members "Provocations." "Despite requests from the police," said a senior police official, "the demonstrators preferred to march into the crowd of chareidi demonstrators in order to get them agitated."
In addition to the tensions between chareidim and Meretz and Shinui demonstrators wearing helmets, there was a sharp split in opinions between the Meretz members from Tel Aviv and their counterparts from Jerusalem. The latter explained to their party colleagues that as long as the road was still open to traffic, their actions would be understood as unnecessary provocations. The Tel Aviv branch members replied, "We didn’t come all the way from Tel Aviv to stand on the side."
Does anything explain the different approach of the two Meretz groups other than the amount of time invested in reaching Rechov Bar Ilan? As a matter of fact, yes.
Around the time of the first demonstrations on Bar Ilan Street, an informal group of chareidi rabbis, journalists, and kiruv personalities initiated a regular series of meetings with the Jerusalem leadership of Meretz, including city councilor Pepe Alalo, and Meir Margoliot, a former Meretz councilman.
At least 30 such meetings took place in a variety of settings, including one in a sukkah. In addition to those meetings, Rabbi Dani Nasi, head of MaNoF, and Pepe Alalu participated in ten or more panel discussions on chareidi-secular relations.
The key to the success of the discussions was that they took place in a format of social dialogue that was not political. The absence of any politicians on the chareidi side insured a minimum of posturing to the chareidi street and a maximum of open discussion.
The Meretz participants, however, faced opposition from the national leadership of the party, which was increasingly concerned with competition from Shinui for the anti-chareidi vote. Dede Zucker was unceremoniously removed from the Meretz Knesset list for his open attitude to chareidim.
In the course of the meetings, genuine friendships developed between the participants that continue to this day. The importance of those personal relationships cannot be overestimated. One can assume that none of the Tel Aviv Meretz members who stirred up the action last Shabbat have chareidi friends to whom they knew they would have to answer the next day.
Over time, each side’s understanding of the red lines and needs of the other grew. For their part, the chareidi participants came to appreciate that the great fear of chilonim is chareidi domination, and that the Meretz members would have no choice but to actively oppose anything smacking of chareidi coercion or violence.
On the other hand, the Meretz participants came to appreciate the desire of chareidim for a peaceful Shabbat atmosphere and became more sympathetic to the chareidi desire to have Bar Ilan closed to Shabbat traffic. Some even offered to work to divert traffic from Bar Ilan so long as the chareidim did not resort to force. As Meir Margolit put it recently, "I have nothing against the chareidim. My fight is with the Right."
The members of the Jerusalem Meretz branch also learned that the difference between the vast majority of the chareidi community and the handful of youthful stone throwers and instigators is not a mere question of tactics.
In the eyes of the mainstream chareidi world, the stone throwers are a poisonous weed that must be uprooted. True, their tactics will prove counterproductive. But that is the least of the objections to them. Their actions constitute the grossest chillul Hashem – of which the Mishna in Avos states: "Unintentional or intentional, both are alike with respect to chilul Hashem." Chareidi neighborhoods were plastered last week with posters of the Eidah HaChareidis and the Vaad Le’Maan Shabbat condemning violence.
Since the recent flare-up of trouble on Rechov Bar Ilan, some of the participants in the discussion groups have been in daily contact. Both sides recognize a common interest in keeping things cool so that the fringe elements of the chareidi world fail in their attempts to draw the larger chareidi world in their wake.
That is what they were doing last Shabbat until the visitors from Tel Aviv intervened.