The neighbourhood of Mea She’arim, built in 1874, is near the Old City of Jerusalem (it is named after its “100 gates”). Today its narrow streets are a stronghold for the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose name means “God-fearing” in Hebrew. Men wear long black coats, their hair styled in side curls known as “peiyes”: women wear long skirts. Alarmed by the modern world, the Haredim refuse assimilation, sticking to halakha, traditional Jewish law: the neighbourhood can seem inhospitable to outsider.
Notices posted by residents near the entrances to Mea She’arim recommend that visitors turn around: tourists carrying cameras are often driven away. The Sikrikim are community lookouts who watch for any perceived threats to their beliefs: their name is inspired by the Sicarii, who tried to expel the Romans during the first century. Pictures of the neighbourhood are usually taken with hidden cameras, as they were for this photo essa.
Clashes occur on a regular basis in Mea She'arim. In May, firefighters were attacked when the Israeli flag on their vehicle was pulled off. A few weeks earlier, the effigy of an Israeli soldier was hanged and burned during the Jewish celebration of Purim. The Israeli flag is regularly burned: soldiers are routinely driven out
Most of the neighbourhood’s residents are of Ashkenazi descent, and they use Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, to communicate (the narrow streets recall the shtetls of eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries). Few of the residents speak Englis.
In Mea She'arim there are no cafes, theatres or restaurants. TV, radio, photography and the internet are also prohibited. Public telephones are a reminder that mobile phones are in short supply, their purchase subject to rabbinic authority.
Women in the ultra-Orthodox community come under the authority of husbands, rabbis and religious law. While gender segregation is prevalent – including separate queues at some shops – women run the household and are in charge of educating children. In Mea She'arim, Jewish women sometimes wear the shal or frumka (left in photo), a full veil akin to the Muslim burqa.
Some residents support the Palestinian cause. Founded in 1938, members of the group Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City” in Aramaic), reject Israeli nationality, refuse to register their children with the authorities and openly call for Israel to be dismantled. Active across many countries, it routinely drapes Mea She’arim with Palestinian flags
The streets are full of pashkevils ("anonymous posters"), posted on a near daily basis by residents to communicate. Mostly they refer to the Torah and community issues: occasionally they become political, as in the photograph above. Before the April 2019 elections, some rabbis urged the community not to vote: Mea She’arim’s inhabitants consider the Israeli government unlawful as “the Messiah alone can restore the Kingdom of Israel”. As such, Zionism goes against their beliefs
Other large ultra-Orthodox communities include Gueoulah in Jerusalem, the city of Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak in northeast Tel Aviv. The birth rate in such regions is high, at just under seven children per woman. According to figures published by the Israel Democracy Institute, it is estimated that about 27 percent of the Israeli population will be of ultra-Orthodox origin by 205.