Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Jews Struggle Over an Israeli Tourist Town's Identity
Tiberias was once a popular weekend beach getaway for Israelis and a magnet for foreign visitors. (PHOTO: Heidi Levine, WSJ)

TIBERIAS, Israel — This ancient city on the Sea of Galilee was once a popular weekend beach getaway for Israelis and a magnet for foreign visitors drawn by its 2,000 years of history.

Now, seagulls and stray cats outnumber people on the city's seaside promenade on the Sabbath, when booths selling cotton candy, popcorn and fake tattoos that residents say once attracted weekend crowds are closed.

Many longtime residents cite a reason that reflects changes rippling across Israel: ultra-Orthodox Jewish migration. The ultra-Orthodox have moved to Tiberias in large numbers in recent years and pressured stores to close for the Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown and extends through dusk on Saturday, giving the once secular-leaning city an image as unfriendly to less conservative and nonreligious Jews.

The changes have sparked a political backlash in Tiberias, where the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, make up about 20% of the population of 44,000 people. In municipal elections last month, Tiberias elected an unconventional mayor who made limiting new ultra-Orthodox arrivals to the city a central issue in his campaign.

"We just aren't going to accept our markets being closed over the weekend," said Ron Cobi, the new Tiberias mayor, a political novice and commodities trader whose blunt and sometimes abrasive approach has helped earn him the nickname "the Tiberian Trump." In speeches on Facebook Live, Mr. Cobi has spoken out against the influx of ultra-Orthodox into Tiberias and promised to restore the city's glory as a tourist destination.

Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Jews Struggle Over an Israeli Tourist Town's Identity
'We just aren't going to accept our markets being closed over the weekend,' said Ron Cobi, the new Tiberias mayor. (PHOTO: Heidi Levine, WSJ)

The ultra-Orthodox had a long history of peacefully coexisting with their secular neighbors until Mr. Cobi's campaign, said Pinkhas Vaknin, a veteran ultra-Orthodox city councilman.

"There was never any tension between the haredim and secular people until he stirred some up," he said.

Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Jews Struggle Over an Israeli Tourist Town's IdentityThe situation in Tiberias has come to symbolize Israel's national struggle over a booming ultra-Orthodox population, the country's fastest-growing group. The ultra-Orthodox now make up 12% of Israel's nearly nine million citizens, up from 10% in 2009, and around 5% percent in 1990. They are projected to be 16% of the population by 2030, with households that average seven children fueling the growth.

This swift growth of the haredi population has also led many in Israel to demand the ultra-Orthodox — the majority of whom receive exemptions from the draft — to share Israel's security burden. On Monday, Israel's governing coalition decided to dissolve the Israeli parliament and go to early elections because it couldn't find a way to pass a bill that would have created quotas for the ultra-Orthodox to join the military.

A housing shortage in cities such as Jerusalem that traditionally have large ultra-Orthodox populations has pushed the community to search across Israel for more affordable places.

In the past, Israel built housing for the ultra-Orthodox in West Bank settlements. But, in addition to inflaming tensions with Palestinians, the towns became unappealing centers of poverty because most of the community's men don't work, instead focusing on religious studies seen as essential to preserving traditional Judaism and relying on social welfare.

Israel has plans to build 200,000 new housing units for the ultra-Orthodox by 2035. But where the units will be built hasn't yet been decided. In his campaign, Mr. Cobi called for limiting the amount of new housing for the ultra-Orthodox in Tiberias.

Elsewhere in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox have used their political and economic power to change the social and religious landscape of a handful of towns and cities, said Dr. Gilad Malach, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox for the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.

"They become more powerful and influential in the municipality, so it brings tension," he said.

Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Jews Struggle Over an Israeli Tourist Town's Identity
Ultra-Orthodox Jews rushed to catch the last buses before public transportation shut down for the Sabbath recently. (PHOTO: Heidi Levine, WSJ)

The ultra-Orthodox began moving to Tiberias about a decade ago, drawn by inexpensive housing and the city's rich religious heritage as the supposed burial place of medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides and final home of the Sanhedrin, the ancient rabbinical assembly.

Many disputes center around activities on the Sabbath. Over the years, the haredim have successfully opposed plans for an ice-skating rink and a zip line over concerns about disturbing the tranquil atmosphere of the Sabbath, on which business and any use of electric machinery is forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

"It would be like canceling Shabbat. So if it's public, we will fight over it," said Mr. Vaknin.

Mr. Vaknin and others say they don't force businesses to close on the Sabbath. But boycotts of establishments that open on the holy day have proved effective. Many businesses now have signs saying "This shop observes the Sabbath."

Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Jews Struggle Over an Israeli Tourist Town's Identity
The ultra-Orthodox had a long history of peacefully coexisting with their secular neighbors, said Pinkhas Vaknin, a veteran ultra-Orthodox city councilman. (PHOTO: Heidi Levine, WSJ)

Along Tiberias's seaside promenade, markets that were once bustling with tourists are now either shut or nearly empty on the weekend, and many nearby restaurants close for the Sabbath. "This place used to be crowded on a Saturday night," Mr. Cobi said.

One bar on the promenade remains open over the weekend in Tiberias — the Big Ben, an English-style pub.

Its owner, Yitzhak Mizrachi, said pressure to close down for the Sabbath included threatening phone calls and groups of men standing outside his bar yelling "Shabbos," a Yiddish pronunciation of Sabbath.

"There were many business owners here who didn't have the strength to deal with pressures from the rabbis," he said.

Mr. Cobi's revitalization plans include reopening businesses on the Sabbath, and adding new attractions. He wants Tiberias to have a zip line running through the downtown area, a water skiing park, free Wi-Fi and virtual maps projected on walls in tourist areas that explain the history of the city.

A former party promoter in the U.S., Mr. Cobi has personally been inviting residents to the Big Ben pub every Friday night since his election. "Once businessmen see tourists returning to the streets of Tiberias, they will reopen their businesses," he said.

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