Beit Shemesh turned into ground zero for tensions between haredi and general
society exactly one year ago today, but the violence and intimidation has since
given way to progress; a model of success that should be imitated across the
Jewish world. However, that success is fragile and our campaign for change must
How do the events of Beit Shemesh in 2011/12 represent an
important milestone in the changing relationship between the haredi community
and the rest of the country, and perhaps more importantly, how did we get there?
Within Beit Shemesh the street-level tension has slackened dramatically. This is
not because the haredim are any less haredi, nor has the rest of the city become
New boundaries and behavior norms have been set between the
communities, which have created a more sensible modus vivendi. In my view this
is the result of three factors:
1. Facts on the ground: The original flashpoint,
the Orot Banot school, is now an accepted reality, both for the extremists who
sought to avoid its opening and the elements within city hall that aligned
themselves with the extremists.
2. Civil action: Robust efforts by
residents who weren’t prepared to put up with more intimidation, together with
police action, reset expectations among the hard-core extremists about what
constitutes acceptable behavior. It is sad that this was required, but important
that local residents had the courage to say “enough is enough.” This action
sparked protests and demonstrations that attracted national participation and
3. Communication: Bridge-building has taken place at an
unprecedented level, with practical, community-driven initiatives. Especially
important are Gesher’s round table and the Beit Shemesh Women’s council, both
breaking barriers that once stood between local communities.
WHAT has clearly not changed is the political dynamic in the city, and the
relative peace and quiet currently enjoyed by the city’s residents will be
tested this year, with tension around the battle for city hall expected to come
to a head.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding the current
leadership’s plans, the most controversial of which are the expansion of the
city along haredi-only lines. The next test for Beit Shemesh will come following
the elections, and we all hope the community initiatives will prove their worth,
allowing residents to restate their commitment to zero physical or verbal
violence or intimidation, even as the political struggle for the city
But looking beyond Beit Shemesh, there have been historic
developments at the national level. The debate last year which brought down the
largest government coalition in recent memory revolved specifically around the
The issue at stake was haredi enlistment into the army
following the end of the Tal Law. The issue was left undecided, resulting in a
difficult legal vacuum and a spectacular political train wreck.
SO IN the
run-up to national elections and as Jews around the world debated the big policy
issues at stake, what was often overlooked is that the main changes on the
ground are actually taking place within the haredi camp itself.
background, a growing legitimacy for “New Haredim,” or working ultra-Orthodox,
has been unfolding.
Not only do they exist, but for the election they
were even looking for their voice to be expressed within the traditional haredi
camps, or more worryingly for the haredi politicians, as independent
There is no single type of New Haredi, and in many ways they find
themselves in the catch-22 position of wanting to be part of, and break away
from, the haredi mainstream at one and the same time. Interestingly, for the
first time, the mainstream haredi politicians are addressing them as a group,
even as the official haredi newspapers still pay lip-service to the axiom
defining haredim that work as living a life of compromise.
So while the
internal bickering continues, more and more haredim are joining special army
programs, and enrolling in higher education initiatives. All of this is reflects
a trend of increasing haredi participation in the workforce, even if in absolute
terms the numbers are still too low.
WHERE DOES this leave general
society, as it observes these changes and trends? As you would expect, it is
complicated. There is a huge amount of impatience as Israelis demand haredi Jews
serve in national service, join the workforce, and develop a more accountable
and modern education system.
At the same time, groups like Gesher are
trying to create a more mature dialogue based on a sense of joint responsibility
for finding the solutions. This is not because we have withdrawn ourselves from
the question of who got us into this mess, but simply due to recognition of the
fact that name-calling and the blame game will not help.
Israeli politicians? To this point they have largely avoided working together to
create practical solutions and instead use the haredi issue as a political
This is true of the haredi and secular politicians
Society (haredi or otherwise) needs to see mature and courageous
leadership navigating these difficult and emotionally charged issues. There is
some optimism given the election result and the rise of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid
party, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
continues to serve as a microcosm for these issues on several
While not the exclusive solution, efforts to live side by side,
stand up for our rights, and build bridges for practical and unthreatening areas
of cooperation must replace the dialogue of dogma.
This and similar
models must be replicated around the country to amplify the positive engagement
among the various social and religious groupings.
Israel’s citizens and
Jews around the world are tired of argument for power and base political ends.
They demand solutions and cooperation for the benefit of the residents of Beit
Shemesh, the citizens of Israel and the Jewish People as a whole.
Goldman is a resident of Beit Shemesh, managing partner at Goldrock Capital, and
chairman of Gesher.