Violence marred a public Remembrance Day ceremony in Beit Shemesh on Wednesday, with tensions between the city’s ultra-Orthodox and Zionist communities boiling over into name calling and violence.
At least one physical altercation and multiple occurrences of verbal abuse took place as hassidim and their national religious and secular neighbors clashed over the observance of Israel’s memorial day.
The ceremony was held at the Resido traffic circle, a junction between the hassidic enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the national-religious neighborhood of Sheinfeld, only blocks from where haredi protesters spat on and cursed schoolgirls during a dispute over a school building in 2011.
According to organizer Richard Peres, an opposition member of the ultra-Orthodox- dominated city council, the event had been moved to Resido at the request of the police, who had objected to his initial proposal to hold the event at the site of a recent incident in which a haredi soldier was harassed.
Many of the most extreme members of the ultra-Orthodox community live nearby.
Citing recent incidents of verbal attacks against soldiers – including one on Holocaust Remembrance Day in which an ultra-Orthodox serviceman was showered with calls of Nazi by a large mob – Peres told The Jerusalem Post
that he did not want to make trouble. The commemoration, he explained, was intended as a way to both stand up against such actions and to express how Israel’s soldiers are “the most holy value in our lives.”
Most haredim don’t agree with those who attack soldiers but “nobody is stopping it, especially not the mayor,” he added.
Standing amid a flag waving crowd of secular and national religious residents in the island in the center of the traffic circle, Peres called upon haredi passersby to participate in memorializing Israel’s fallen soldiers.
“We don’t intend to cause a provocation” but rather to “sanctify life,” he announced over a loudspeaker. “Haredim and other Israelis are not enemies,” he added.
Opposition leader Eli Cohen agreed, telling the Post
that he hopes the haredim would “feel that the soldiers are part of them” as well.
At first, most of the haredim living in the neighborhood seemed more bemused than anything else, saying that they didn’t care one way or the other about the event and with one going so far as to say he believes that residents should learn Torah in the merit of those who fell.
“They are trying to make a provocation, but we won’t respond,” one heavily bearded hassid said.
One national-religious resident who declined to be identified said that “there have been soldiers who have been harassed, spat at, called names etc. while waiting at bus-stops near and around the Resido area” and that most of them do not file complaints.
While soldiers generally do not face harassment in most of the city, the problem was severe enough in several neighborhoods that the army decided last May to allow haredi soldiers to travel home sans their uniforms.
Not all members of the national religious community supported the ceremony, however, with some taking to Facebook to voice their displeasure and terming it provocative.
Among those who came out against the ceremony was former Yesh Atid MK and Sheinfeld resident Rabbi Dov Lipman.
“I am 100 percent against it. We have restored quiet to our neighborhood and children of the neighborhood walk in uniform all the time with no issues. There is no reason to do this event there other than a provocation and I have begged Richard Peres not to come to our neighborhood to do this,” he wrote.
“I don’t think this is the day or place for it and for all the official statements of ‘why can’t we do a memorial for soldiers whenever and wherever we want.’ His goal is a provocation and I am against it.”
As the event progressed the presence of members of more extreme groups began to come out, with one hassid whipping out and waving a Palestinian flag, prompting several men to run after him hurling sticks and insults.
As the police pushed the men back, the hassid ran down a nearby hill into a local study hall, police hot on his heels.
At the same time, residents of a local building began screaming that the “Zionists” should leave their neighborhood and a number of residents watching the commemoration began yelling insults, comparing their secular neighbors to World War II era-Germans.
Those participating in the commemoration are “worse than Nazis,” one hassid said, explaining that Germans “were born that way” but that Jews should know better.
One national-religious soldier confronted him, saying that while he believes that the hassid’s Torah study protected him, by the same token the hassid must accept that the soldier’s service provides him with physical protection.
Spurned by the hassid, the soldier got red faced and began to scream, calling the hassid “garbage.”
One hassid, standing by the side and chatting with several of his friends as well as a number of national religious residents, said that such behavior was the fault of the police, who he believed to be scared of confronting the extremists.
Participants in the event had to be escorted to their cars by riot police, who were out in force, as hassidim rained abuse upon them from their balconies.