Beyond the extensive media coverage of the violence perpetrated by a small haredi minority, the real issue for secular and national religious residents of
Beit Shemesh is less the violence than what is perceived as an ultra-Orthodox
takeover of what was once a diverse and ethnically mixed city.
Shemesh, a city of some 80,000 residents nestled in the Judean Hills a short
drive from Jerusalem, is for the most part a quiet town. However, that quiet was
recently disturbed and brought the city to international notoriety when a small
group of extremists affiliated with the Sikrikim (Sicarii) of Jerusalem moved
into the mostly hassidic neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and began
harassing the national-religious population of the neighboring Sheinfeld
district. This harassment culminated in the public battle over the Orot Orthodox
girls’ school, which lay on property that the extremists wanted to make part of
While most of the haredi residents of Beit Shemesh
want to live in peace with their traditional, national-religious and secular
neighbors, asserts American-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, a community activist
frequently at loggerheads with the local hassidic and Lithuanian Orthodox
communities, the rabbinic leadership has been attempting to wrest control of the
city away from the other sectors.
Lipman, who belongs to a more liberal
and nationalistic American stream of haredi Judaism, has battled for years
against what he sees as the encroaching haredi influence on his
Lipman explains that “to claim anti-religious sentiment in Beit
Shemesh is false and inaccurate. The issue isn’t haredim coming here,” he says.
“It is their sense of being in control here, which has gone through the roof
since [Mayor] Moshe Abutbul came into power.”
This claim, echoed by city
councilman and secular resident Motti Cohen of the Dor Aher party, is one that
is heard throughout the city.
Cohen explains that many secular residents,
including himself, initially supported and voted for the mayor, who represents
“Abutbul positioned himself as representing the interests of all
the residents,” says Cohen, asserting that the mayor only puts any real effort
into building for certain segments of the haredi population.
trying to ‘haredize’ the city,” says Cohen. “We have no problem with building
even more haredi neighborhoods; they just shouldn’t be dominant.”
and Lipman both emphasize that except for the actions of the Sikrikim, there is
no territorial conflict in Beit Shemesh outside of the political arena and that
there is normally little or no violence in the streets.
Indeed, were it
not for the reports in the newspapers, Beit Shemesh would seem positively
Children and mothers stroll the streets, while the numerous
parks and playgrounds are filled with shrieks of delight. However, violence and
religious compulsion do exist to a certain degree.
Robert Schloss, a
recent immigrant and resident of the mixed suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, an
English-speaking middle-class stronghold, says he believes that the neighborhood
rabbis, through their communities’ representatives on the city council, maintain
strict control over the types of businesses that can operate in the
Citing the lack of sit-down restaurants within the haredi
neighborhoods and juxtaposing that with the large crowds of black-hatted men and
head-covered women in eateries outside the confines of the expanding Orthodox
neighborhoods, Schloss, who is modern Orthodox, says that a number of people
have asked him why there are no bars, full-service restaurants, outdoor cafes,
bowling alleys or movie theaters.
“My answer is based on anecdotal
evidence,” he states. “The powers that be do not want these distractions in our
Lipman agrees with Schloss’s assessment.
Beit Shemesh Alef, which is a mixed neighborhood, the rabbis do not let anyone
sit in pizza shops. If you tried to sit and eat with your wife in Ramat Beit
Shemesh Bet, it would cause problems.
Yes, we live our lives here, but in
conformity to these rules and expectations,” says Lipman.
of the haredi community, however, strongly oppose the claims of the more modern
Rabbi Shmuel Poppenheim, an unofficial spokesman for the
anti-Zionist Eda Haredit movement and community leader in Beit Shemesh’s Kirya
Haredit neighborhood, says that most of the residents in his community want to
live in a mixed city and that most of the major positions in the municipal
coalition are held by modern Orthodox or secular Jews.
“The city is
becoming more haredi,” he says, but his community is not doing anything to take
over the city. The problem, Poppenheim explains, is that the different
communities are not used to each other and have developed mutual
Poppenheim is known as something of a radical in his
community, due to his advocating for members of the haredi community to join the
workforce. He has even expressed his support for military service, if not for
Zionism, which he considers a forbidden ideology.
“The problem,” he
reiterates, “is extremists on both sides.”
Mayor Moshe Abutbul is at the
center of much of the controversy in Beit Shemesh, especially after local police
representatives took him to task for allegedly lying about the police force’s
stated ability to defend the girls of the Orot school from attack by
Speaking with In Jerusalem, Abutbul maintains that he is the
“mayor for all of Beit Shemesh” and that under his tenure, building for all
sectors of the population has been planned.
According to Abutbul, the
neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, currently under construction, is
being built for haredim, while new construction is planned for the
national-religious community in a neighborhood called “Mishkafayim,” which is to
belocated next to Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef.
Furthermore, the mayor says, a
new mall is being built in the industrial zone at the edge of the city, and a
new housing project for secular residents is being planned for the deteriorating
However, Lipman has also objected to the mayor’s
characterization of these new projects. Noting that the mayor had previously
referred to Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel as not being specifically for haredi
residents, Lipman says that “There is construction for dati’im [religious
people] here and there – another few hundred. But for the past year, his
right-hand man, Moshe Montag, has been announcing 20,000 units for haredim in
the hills of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Twenty thousand more than doubles the
size of the city! The nerve to claim it is equal when this is all being planned.
He mentions the 1,300 in the pinui uvinui in old Beit Shemesh. Those projects
never come to fruition, and it is all a smoke screen. And even if they do
happen, it takes around 10 years.”
“Pinui uvinui” refers to the practice
of finding alternative housing for residents while their buildings are being
torn down to make way for newer, higher density construction on the same
Lipman also criticizes the mayor’s taking credit for the
“Do we have any movie theaters for people who want that? How about
bowling? They build new retail malls, but ones that fit the rules/guidelines of
the ‘holiness of the city.’ Also, he is the one who actually stopped the
construction of the mega mall that was supposed to raise the level of the city
to new heights with theaters and other things,” says Lipman.
the coalition agreement calls for expedited haredi expansion, it surely doesn’t
intend the exclusion of expansion for the other communities as well,” says
resident Shmuel Katz of the national- religious Sheinfeld
Rafi Goldmeier, a local resident and widely known
moderate-haredi blogger, says that the “character of Ramat Beit Shemesh has
changed slightly in dynamics since the early days. In the early days, the
dominant sector was the national religious with a strong but small secular
presence and a growing haredi presence.
Over the years the dynamics
shifted, with most of the secular moving away and the remaining secular keeping
a low profile, while the haredi sector continued to increase and become the
dominant sector in strength, if not in numbers. At the same time, the national
religious seem to have been hurt by many leaving for greener pastures in other
cities. They do so for reasons not limited to the ‘religious conflict’ alone but
also for reasons such as proximity to work and employment
Goldmeier believes that the haredim generally get along
“fine” with their national-religious and secular neighbors. The problem, he
says, lies in the fact that “extreme elements have become more powerful, finding
support from Moshe Abutbul.”
One local politician, however, has indicated
that he believes that the conflict over housing allocations will eventually
erupt into violence. Richard Peres, a member of the city council representing
the Labor Party, says that while the on agreement signed after the city
elections specified that new building should be divided equally among the
secular, national-religious and haredi sectors, the mayor violated the terms of
the agreement almost immediately.
“It’s all for the haredim,” he
complains. “We need a separation between the haredim and the residents of old
Beit Shemesh or there will be a war with bloodshed,” he warns. “We will use what
we learned in the IDF to fight them.
However, Lipman downplays Peres’s
warnings. He does say, however, that should the extremists – who do more
terrorize other haredim than the secular residents – attempt any violent
behavior in old Beit Shemesh, a secular area, the residents would not
passively as happens in the more hassidic Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Newman of the moderate haredi Tov party downplays Lipman’s rhetoric in
According to Newman, an Anglo resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, most of
raised in the press regarding Beit Shemesh are exaggerations, and people
street get along fine in day-to-day life.
While no one disagrees with the
contention that the streets of Beit Shemesh are not running red with
issues, mostly contained within the walls of the municipality, threaten
disrupt the peace of this growing community. The issue of a rapidly
haredi population, however, certainly warrants attention.
majority of the haredim are willing to live in peace, the presence of a
much more vocal and influential community of extremists does threaten to
much greater problems down the line.