The question whether the ultra-Orthodox community has an obligation to stand up to the extremism and violence going on in Beit Shemesh for several years became a heated topic in recent weeks following a series of verbal and physical attacks by members of the fringe Sicarii extremist sect.
Over the past several weeks at least two ultra-Orthodox soldiers were verbally assaulted, called Nazis and screamed at by large mobs. In another case, offenders pelted an IDF rabbi with garbage before being driven back by a second group of hassidim who came to the soldier’s rescue.
On Saturday evening Atara Beck, a modern-Orthodox Canadian immigrant and occasional Jerusalem Post contributor, was driving past a synagogue in the insular hassidic neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet when a group of ultra-Orthodox youth began pelting her car with refuse.
Entering the synagogue in search of an adult, Beck was studiously ignored by the hassidim, and when she left said that “they were all screaming ‘shiksa, shiksa,’” the Yiddish derogatory phrase for a gentile woman.
“A couple of hours later on the way home, one of the teens was standing there hitchhiking.
I stopped and he actually came to the car to take a ride. Then he recognized me and tried to say the kids weren’t doing anything damaging and I shouldn’t be going to a synagogue,” she recalled in a Facebook post.
“These could have been bored, harmless kids who had nothing to do and had no supervision. They didn’t throw rocks or anything physically damaging – at least not this time. But after I went inside the synagogue to ask about it, no adult would say a word to me.
No one reprimanded the kids or told them that they should apologize and that their behavior was unacceptable. In fact, it got worse. Because of the lack of response, when I left, mobs of them were screaming,” she subsequently told the Post.
Beck, who lives in the more diverse, if still predominantly ultra-Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, said that she feels that her city’s future is “bleak,” and that while “most haredim are good people,” she still doesn’t see much hope for the future there.
Beck’s negativity echoes that of many residents, who feel a deep resentment toward the local rabbinate and community leaders whom they see as not taking a role in combating extremism.
“I am not aware of any real efforts by haredi rabbis to rid us of these violent extremists,” said Daniel Goldman, the chairman of Gesher, an organization dedicated to building bridges between ultra-Orthodox, secular and national-religious Jews.
“I know that the internal violence within the haredi community is severe and worse than the violence we see toward other communities. The most oft-repeated comment is that the police should arrest those responsible.”
“There is great resentment,” agreed local resident Esther Schwartz-Ivgy. “Despite the words used by haredim saying they don’t agree with extremists, their actions, and most importantly inactions, express complicity.”
According to her view, extremism could be curbed, at least somewhat, if men implicated in extremist actions were to be made into social pariahs within the larger ultra-Orthodox community.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the extremists, who are in many ways a unique and separate subculture, despite coming under the common typology of ultra-Orthodox, would not be swayed in any way by the opprobrium of the surrounding haredi culture, and that any condemnation or protest against them would be useless.
“I think the general population sees them as an extremist group that doesn’t reflect on the broader population’s values, and that it would be pointless to counter and stand up to them,” commented resident Sheera Scherman. “By definition, their extremism would be hard to be reined in by general opposition. If there is something illegal going on, the law should take care of it.
The rest of us are happy to live our lives and not engage with the extremists.”
“In my opinion the extremists are a breed unto themselves; and even if they were approached by the haredi community, it would not have the slightest effect on them,” agreed Shoshana Zisovitz.
This line of reasoning became the center of a local controversy when it was publicly propounded by American haredi Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz in 2012, during the height of a debate over how to respond to extremist attacks against young pupils at the Orot Banot girls school.
Writing an online responsum, Malinowitz explained that “the minute I respond to a request to address the issue, so that the ‘public’ can hear what a ‘moderate haredi rabbi’ holds, I’ve bought into your narrative and have allowed myself to be sucker punched.
“Do you also ask all Jews to condemn Bernard Madoff? How anti-Semitic! Do you ask all Italians to condemn Mafia murder? That is racism at its worst!”
Former Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who shot to national prominence on the back of his public stand against the Sicarii at Orot Banot, had harsh words for those who would not condemn the violence.
“The rabbinic leadership is completely responsible for this behavior, and I refer to haredi rabbis whose congregants don’t behave this way as well,” he asserted.
“I recently reached out to haredi leadership to come out against the extremists in a public manner, and they have refused to do so – just as they did a few years ago during the Orot girls school episode. Their lack of action is to blame, and the more moderate haredim living among the extremists suffer the most, and they are the ones who have told me, ‘If only the rabbis would speak out against the extremism,’” Lipman lamented.
“The people in the community say that if the haredi leadership en masse would come out against the extremists, then it would silence them. I am tired of hearing people say, ‘It wont help, so we won’t do it.’ How about trying it and seeing what happens,” he raged.
“There comes a time when you have to speak out against that which is wrong because doing so is simply the right thing to do.”
While the municipality did not return a request for clarification of which policies it is pursuing, if any, to minimize the occurrence of incidents of harassment, city council opposition head Eli Cohen said that he believes there are a number of steps that can and should be taken.
The mayor, who is ultra-Orthodox, has influence over many local rabbis and can impress upon them the need to speak out against tolerating violence, he asserted, adding that the municipality also can push for the police to up their efforts in enforcement.
“So the police should do what the police should do, and the politicians should do what they should do, and the rabbis should do what they should do,” he said.
“To my sorrow, they are doing nothing.”