As thousands of protesters against the judicial overhaul prepared to rally in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak last week, Haim Uzan feared catastrophic violence.
“On the one side you have a city of 250,000 people,” Uzan, 36, said of Bnei Brak, where Haredi parties that support the right-wing government’s overhaul received 89% of the votes in last year’s general election. “On the other you have thousands of angry protesters, mostly seculars from the left, almost all of them from out of town. One wrong word, and it’s a nuclear explosion.”
Yet despite some friction, the event last Thursday took a heartwarming turn: Thanks to Uzan’s initiative to defuse the situation, the protesters were greeted with songs, dancing, flowers, snacks, sweets, drinks and even cholent – the traditional slow-cooked bean stew that many Haredi and other Jewish families consume on Shabbat.
A relatively minor encounter, the Bnei Brak “cholent party,” as one witness called it, nonetheless may offer important lessons for Israeli society as it girds for a new chapter in the polarizing fight over the overhaul, which the government this week said it would put on hold to allow for talks due to a wave of protests.
The local response snowballed out of a WhatsApp group that Uzan, a Orthodox Jewish Jerusalem-born father of three who works in finance, opened and named “Receiving the left-wing’s protest with song.” The original idea was to “put on happy music, producing a light-hearted atmosphere that would cool the atmosphere and lower the risk of provocation,” he wrote in the group’s info.
This set off a massive response. A popular ultra-Orthodox radio station, Kol Haim Music, agreed to air upbeat songs for three hours commercial-free, giving a single soundtrack for the Bnei Brak streets where the protesters marched through. “I asked everyone with an amplifier to play ‘Kol Haim’ for the out-of-towners,” Uzan told The Times of Israel.
The plan was not only to lighten the mood, Uzan said, but also to drown out any provocative messages on the part of the loudspeaker-toting marchers, whom many locals assumed were Haredi-haters. “When music fills our streets, we won’t hear the protesters’ calls or the messages they repeat and there will be less hostility, God willing,” Uzan wrote in the WhatsApp group.
With the soundtrack blasting from hundreds of car radios, home stereos and even school paging systems, the stage was set for the next phase: treats. Uzan invited locals to hand out soft drinks, cakes, snacks and kugel – a brown sugar-noodle casserole for which Bnei Brak is famous. Local cholent eateries also answered the call, setting up soup kitchens around huge, boiler-sized cholent pots.
Part of the generosity had to do with the protest’s timing, according to Yaakov Vider, a Haredi politician representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on Bnei Brak’s city council.
“Thursday night is special because that’s when young guys hang out on in the Haredi world’s equivalent of a bar – tiny cholent eateries,” Vider said. But the protest march disrupted that scene on March 23, and many would-be patrons stayed indoors at the behest of their rabbis, who asked everyone to keep away from the protests to minimize friction.
“So the cholent bars were left with way too much cholent. And there was this grassroots movement to treat the protesters, so they carted in those a few of those huge pots and started handing out cholent in disposable bowls with plastic cutlery,” Vider recalled.
Uzan got the idea for his charm offensive from his place of work, he said. “Some of my colleagues are secular leftists,” Uzan explained, “the kind of people who didn’t miss a single protest against the overhaul,” he said about the plan to transfer some of the judiciary’s powers, which supporters of the overhaul say are excessive, to the legislature. The plan’s critics say it risks turning Israel into a dictatorship.
At work, Uzan has never felt any hostility from secular colleagues. “It’s because we know each other personally, we talk to one another. My takeaway from my own situation was to create a setting that would encourage this unmediated encounter,” said Uzan.
Several Bnei Brak city council members had had a similar idea, Vider said. “We wanted the large charities based in Bnei Brak, like the ZAKA emergency service and the Ezer Mizion medical aid agency, to greet the protesters, show them the most beautiful face of Bnei Brak. Start a dialogue.”
Many non-Haredi Israelis often accuse the ultra-Orthodox in Israel of failing to meet their civic duties. Slurs dehumanizing language about parasitism, laziness and ignorance are commonplace in conversations among Israelis about the Haredim, who are largely exempt from military service, have a lower official employment rate and a far higher birthrate than other Jewish Israelis. “The left’s protest was an opportunity for us to correct stereotypes,” Vider said.
But police, Vider added, vetoed the idea of a formal welcoming committee, opting for an approach of minimum contact. He and many others feared that this would “create a vacuum that would invite radicals and rascals,” as Vider, 39, put it. “When dialog doesn’t take place, insults do,” Vider said.
Some unpleasantness did occur: Locals hurled firecrackers at some protesters.
But thanks to Uzan’s initiative, conversations also took place. Videos and images from the rally show protesters smiling and posing for pictures with the locals.
“I guess it was an inspiring moment when the country’s so divided,” Uzan said. “But to me, most moving and important of all was to see how protesters and local Haredim got to talking to one another, just chatting, at an event that everyone feared would involve only angry shouts.”
Uzan is thinking of ways to leverage his initiative’s momentum — and its WhatsApp group of more than 1,000 supportive Bnei Brak residents — for additional projects that unite Haredim and other Jews in Israel. He is open to suggestions via email, he said. PJC