Beit Shemesh girls school protest 521.
(photo credit: Atara Beck)
It is time for genuine soul searching among the haredi leadership. The
progression seen in the last few months is inexcusable. First, mainstream haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) rabbis refused to condemn the verbal and sometimes physical
assaults on children at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh. Activists met
with rabbis of various hassidic sects and tried to put together a coalition of
haredi rabbis against the violence.
While some privately expressed anger
over what was happening, none was willing to join.
rabbis denounced the violence in a strongly worded letter, which the local
haredi rabbis refused to sign. The moderate haredi Tov Party joined in
demonstrations and spoke out against the violence, but the activists failed to
generate the unified response from all haredi leaders that was needed to heal
the open wounds and confront the extremists.
Then, the haredi leadership
invented an “anti-haredi” campaign. Certain haredi political leaders, rabbis and
journalists – instead of joining the rest of the country in condemning the
violence and the extremists, which were exposed on national television –
resorted to claiming simply that “they are anti-haredi.”
The most extreme
example of this made-up campaign was in a Beit Shemesh newspaper that functions
under the auspices of haredi political and rabbinic leaders. It reported that
“innocent Jewish children with traditional peyos framing their cherubic faces
have become the target of virulent verbal and even physical abuse, preyed on by
common street thugs. Their very blood and dignity is laid waste, free for the
taking by any hotheaded hooligan under the influence of the venomous media
According to the paper, “tens of thousands of Jewish mothers
nationwide are terrified, fearful for their children’s safety.... We receive
daily reports about haredi Jews in various cities across the country who have
been victimized.... Boys and girls age 10 and younger have been the victims of
violent assault, with some requiring hospitalization for their injuries.... All
of these innocent victims are severely traumatized with emotional wounds that
may never heal.”
While there were unverified reports of sporadic
incidents of this kind, the exaggerated description of a country filled with
attacks against haredi children and their desperate mothers is simply
inaccurate. Lies and distortions in a religious publication, which rile up a
haredi street that has no other source of news, is extremely disturbing,
especially when written under the auspices of rabbis who must okay what is
Unfortunately, less malicious but nonetheless inaccurate reports
made their way into this magazine last week (“Who picks up the tab for
manufactured social conflict?,” January 20). The column’s labeling of the Beit
Shemesh protest as an “anti-haredi demonstration” was false. There was not one
“anti-haredi” statement from the speakers at that rally. The column’s report that
journalist Yair Lapid suggested that the Beit Shemesh story could happen
throughout the country “unless the haredim are brought to heel” was incorrect.
Lapid said nothing about “the haredim” and was careful to mention only
“extremist haredim,” a significant difference. Finally the column’s statement
that Lapid’s documentary “did not reflect current realities” was untrue. The
extremists began to return to the school again shortly before Hanukka, and
children were still scared, as Naama’s tears demonstrated.
So it is time
for some introspection in the mainstream haredi leadership. Why didn’t it join
the moderate haredim, the religious Zionists and the secular to condemn the
violence? Why didn’t its representatives come to the school even once to witness
the venom coming from these violent men and the fear on the children’s faces, to
educate themselves regarding the severity of the situation? Why didn’t the
haredi newspapers cover the truly scared mothers and emotionally scarred
children of Orot? Why did they twist the words of the news reports and the rally
into “anti-haredi”? Why are they so quick to speak harshly about this made-up
campaign, lying to rile up the haredi street?
Before I suggest an answer to
these questions, let me make clear that I view myself as “haredi,” some of my
closest friends are “haredi,” and the rabbis who have influenced me most in my
life are “haredi.” This is why the failures of the haredi leadership so disturb
me. I openly declare in local, national and international media that the
majority of haredim would never be violent and have no interest in imposing
their lifestyle on others. So attempts to dismiss my serious questions via
charges that I am “anti-haredi” won’t work.
I suggest that haredi leaders
would not condemn the violence, would not stand side-by-side with the rest of
Israel at demonstrations, reacted to the charges against the extremists by being
defensive and crying “anti-haredi,” and had to resort to lies or, at best,
inaccuracies to make those charges stick, because they continue to view their
standing in Israel as “us against them.” And as long as they see the rest of the
country as being against them, not only are they incapable of condemning acts by
even the most extreme haredim, they must find fault with everyone else, to the
point of making up stories with no basis in reality. Because haredi leaders
direct the community in this tone, even moderate haredi journalists cannot
accept that the non-haredi side is completely blameless.
And therein lies
their tragic mistake. These haredi political leaders, rabbis and journalists
must recognize the changing times. While Israel’s secular founders wanted to rid
the state of religion and haredism, that is no longer the case. As the director
of the secular Yisrael Hofshit told me before our joint rally, “We don’t want
them to stop being haredi. We just want them to respect us and not force
anything on others.”
Lapid himself openly made this declaration in a
graduation speech at a haredi college in Kiryat Ono when he told the students,
“You won!” and went on to explain that the religious world had proven that there
was no justification for a State of Israel without religion. The haredi
leadership must recognize that Yair Lapid is not his father Tommy Lapid – the
former chairman of the anti-religious Shinui Party – and it is time to adjust to
the new realities in which we live.
These leaders must begin viewing
themselves as part of one nation where we all work together to make the country
better. If haredi extremists act improperly, then haredi politicians must join
the rest of the country in condemning them without qualifications.
settler extremists act violently, haredi journalists should not say, “Look, they
do it, too,” but join the rest of the country in denouncing them.
horrifying murders occur, haredi rabbis should not respond by saying, “Look what
happens when you don’t have Torah,” but should cry with the rest of the
The haredi street is ripe for this shift; I know this firsthand.
Since the massive, nationally televised Beit Shemesh rally, I have been
contacted by Belz, Ger and Breslov Hassidim who want to work not only with me,
but with secular groups to fight against extremism and to improve our country.
The time has come for the rest of the haredi political leaders, rabbis and
journalists to follow suit.
The writer is an educator, author and
community activist in Beit Shemesh and the director of the English Speakers
Division of the Am Shalem movement. www.rabbilipman.com