Although the identities of the six suspects arrested in connection with the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir have not been released for publication, it is now clear that they come from a marginal Sephardi haredi background and that they are part of a societal grouping referred to colloquially as “delinquent youth.”
According to information gleaned by The Jerusalem Post, the suspects are from haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and the settlement of Adam some 20km northwest of Jerusalem.
The background of the suspects comes as something of a surprise since it appears that the murderers do not come from among extremist settler groups which were initially suspected in the case.
The suspects are apparently from one extended family, and include an uncle, two sets of brothers, who are cousins, and another cousin. Of the six suspects, three are minors.
Another suspect was arrested on Tuesday although his background is not yet known.
One of the six suspects arrested earlier this week is from the Adam settlement, is the eldest of the group and runs an optician’s store in one of Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods.
A business contact of the suspect told The Jerusalem Post that he was observant of Jewish law and wears a kippa, or skullcap, but said he would not describe him as haredi since he wears jeans and is not part of the haredi mainstream.
The business contact said that the suspect appeared to be “level-headed, and totally normal,” and said that it was almost impossible to believe he could have been involved in the murder of Abu Khdeir.
An assistant in a dental office next door to the optician store familiar with the suspect made similar comments.
Neighbors of the suspects from Beit Shemesh denied knowing them or their family, with one telling the Post that he had “no idea” who they were.
“We don’t want to talk about this,” one of the only neighbors to acknowledge the suspect’s existence said. “Nobody wants to talk about this. It’s an unfortunate thing. These are good people. They shouldn’t be bothered.”
Other residents of the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood were more open, indicating that it was common knowledge that the suspect came from their neighborhood.
According to sources, the young men suspected of the murder belong to a family affiliated with the Sephardic Shas party. At least one of them was described as a delinquent youth who lived on the fringes of the haredi community.
Asked about the young man, one resident said that “everybody knows that he’s crazy. The guy is just nuts. The whole family is nuts.” The grandfather of one of the suspects told Yediot Aharonot that his grandchild was disturbed and that he “could destroy worlds if he did not take his pills.” It is unclear if he was referring to the suspect from Beit Shemesh.
One local shopkeeper complained of the high number of delinquent youth in Beit Shemesh, stating that many are denied outlets to channel their energy and end up acting out on the streets.
The fact that the suspects appear to be from the haredi sector has led to unprecedented criticism of the murder of Abu Khdeir from the haredi leadership on Monday and Tuesday.
The biggest selling haredi daily Yated Ne’eman published on its front page a statement by the head of the non-hassidic Ashkenazi haredi community Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman who vigorously condemned the murder.
“Whoever did such deeds threatens the life of the Jewish people,” Yated Ne’eman quoted the rabbi as saying.
“This is a terribly severe deed which is forbidden and is not the way of the Torah,” said Shteinman.
“The path of violence and revenge are not our ways and anyone who does such things threatens the lives of the Jewish people.”
The comments about threatening the lives of the Jewish people refer to a concept in Jewish law known as ‘rodef’ in which the actions of one Jew can lead to attacks on the broader Jewish community.
Such a person is considered to pose a mortal danger to the lives of others and, according to Jewish law, may be killed before he himself causes harm.
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the spiritual leader of the haredi Shas movement, also condemned the murder in severe terms and referred to the murderers in the context of the rodef concept.
“A person whose hands are stained with the blood of innocents is liable to the law of rodef ,” Ynet quoted Shalom as saying on Monday.
Haredi media also vigorously denounced the murderers. In its Tuesday editorial, Yated Ne’eman described them as “not being from the ‘classic’ right wing, but being from the “margins of the margins of the bored people in the street who find no other satisfaction in their lives other than pointless vagrancy including attacking Arabs and sometimes Jews too,” a description that seemingly fits with the general perception of the delinquent youth found at the fringe of parts of the haredi community, particularly the Sephardi sector.
Speaking to the Post, Dr. Haim Zicherman, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute for its Project on Religion and State, said that the phenomenon of the “marginal” or “delinquent youth” from the haredi sector has been growing for many years.
“Young teenagers who don’t fit in to this framework are often left without options and they lose the haredi lifestyle and values they started out with, and can quickly deteriorate socially speaking,” Zicherman said.
He noted that the phenomenon was prominent, although not confined, to the Sepahrdi community, possible due to the wave of Sephardim who became Orthodox during the Spehardi revial of the 1980s and 1990s.
The children of such families often found it hard to be accepted into the mainstream which contributed to the increasing levels of youth delinquency in the community.
The issue is not “about dropouts alone” though, Rabbi Uri Regev of the Hiddush religious equality NGO told The Jerusalem Post. Despite media coverage linking delinquency among dropouts living on the fringes of ultra-orthodox to extremism, he said, “marginal individuals, religious and secular alike, are capable of horrific behavior.”
However, he continued, “the fact is that hatred towards Arabs is too clearly a characteristic of haredi and religious youth, way beyond secular or traditional. Similarly regarding basic principles of democracy, such as equality.”
“So long as the religious leadership decries the act but is blind to the spirit that nurtures it - there will be others who will target Arabs at large for punishment and revenge.”
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul was quoted by Arutz Sheva as saying that he knows the family of the suspects and that they are a “pleasant” and “quality” family and that he hoped that the charges would be proven false.